If Robert Kennedy had lived, would he won the Democratic nomination?
This is the third memoir I have read of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign, and they are all well written. The other two were by journalists Jack Newfield and Jules Witcover who covered the campaign. This book was written four decades later but it serves as the most definitive account.
All of three books unquestionably have a liberal bias. Thurston Clarke does not pretend to be objective. He clearly idealizes Kennedy. He portrays the late Senator as a great moral teacher who was always in the forefront of efforts to combat poverty, racism and the Vietnam War.
Many of the authors claims can be easily rebutted by conservatives, but this book is still interesting because of the detail it provides regarding the campaign. To understand the story of 1968 you have to begin with the New Hampshire primary and the Tet Offensive.
A slate of electors pledged to President Lyndon Johnson won the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary, but the results were devastating for the incumbent. LBJ was challenged from the left by Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), and the focal point of the campaign was his opposition to the Vietnam War.
When 1968 began the war appeared to be going well and Johnson had a significant lead in the polls. McCarthy was not considered a serious contender, and the Gallup Poll showed him at 12%. The news media portrayed him as a heroic but grossly underfunded peace candidate.
The massive Viet Cong Tet Offensive of January 31st changed everything. It involved attacks on practically every major city and town. Public perceptions about the war were reversed and negative stories about Vietnam dominated news media coverage. The public began to think the Vietnam War might not be winnable. McCarthy had not attacked Johnson directly up to that point, and the Senator made his first visit to New Hampshire just six weeks before the primary.
The political establishment was stunned by the news out of the Granite State on March 12, 1968 which showed Johnson defeating McCarthy by a slim 49% to 42% margin. When Republican write-in votes were later counted, McCarthy had come within 230 votes of upsetting Johnson.
New Hampshire changed the political landscape. Five days later Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) entered the Democratic contest. This book focuses on the 82 days of the Kennedy campaign. He was only 42 years old and GOP frontrunner Richard Nixon watched RFK’s announcement from Portland, Oregon hotel room. He thought Kennedy would be the Democratic nominee.
The ten week campaign was filled with drama. At the end of March, Johnson withdrew as a candidate. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th, and riots erupted throughout the nation. Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the campaign on April 27th, but he refused to enter the primaries. He would not give permission to have his name placed on primary ballots.
Kennedy won in Indiana and Nebraska, while McCarthy defeated the Johnson slate in Wisconsin. RFK refused to debate Senator McCarthy which damaged him in the Oregon primary in late May. McCarthy won and Kennedy reversed his position. He agreed to a televised date on June 1st, and California became a “must win” primary. The debate robbed McCarthy of his major issue, which was Kennedy’s reluctance to confront him.
The debate moderator was ABC’s Frank Reynolds who said “There doesn’t seem to be too many differences between Senator McCarthy and Senator Kennedy on anything, really.” Three days later RFK won his greatest victory in California. The next stop was the June 18th New York primary, and Kennedy never had the opportunity to make his pitch to party regulars.
The historian Ronald Steel said:
I think Bobby Kennedy continues to haunt our imagination because he represents what might have been. We can never be disillusioned, because it’s always in the unfulfilled future. He never failed, because he was denied the chance, of course. But he opened the sense of possibilities of change…. He spoke in a language that people could find their hopes, and their dreams. And so, I think we’ll always read in Bobby Kennedy, not what was, or what failed to be, but what might have been.
The general election between Nixon and Vice President Hubert Humphrey was very close, and many pundits argue that Democrats would have won if Kennedy had been their nominee. We will never know the answer. The Senator was assassinated the night of his California victory, June 4, 1968, the results were as follows:
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY): 46.3%
Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN): 41.8%
Attorney General Thomas Lynch (D-CA): 12% (Humphrey stand-in)
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY): 38%
Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN): 35%
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY): 53%
Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN): 30%
Delegate Projections as of June 6, 1968
Majority Needed For Victory: 1313
Vice President Hubert Humphrey (D-MN): 1030
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY): 890
Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN): 250
The nomination process was far different in 1968 than the system we know today. Even if Kennedy had won all of the primaries it is still doubtful he would have won the nomination. The primaries determined only 19% of the delegates. Humphrey needed just 300 delegates to secure the nomination and he had the united support of DNC members, the AFL-CIO, big city machines and party regulars. The exception was Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley who was undecided. McCarthy demonstrated considerable hostility toward Kennedy and threatened to throw his 250 delegates to Humphrey. To win, Kennedy would have to convince a number of Humphrey supporters to switch sides.