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What if Reagan won in 1968?

By Bruce Walker
web posted March 3, 2003

Presidential elections are among the most intriguing counterfactual history exercises. What if Woodrow Wilson, the worst American president of the Twentieth Century, had lost the razor thin 1916 election? Almost certainly, America would have stayed out of the Great War, and could have used its immense wealth and influence to secure a just peace in 1918.

What if Colin Powell had joined the Republican ticket in 1996? A Dole-Powell ticket might well have won the election, and these two principled combat veterans would have produced a very different, and much better, American foreign policy. Dole, the dreadful campaigner, would have been perhaps the best president in getting bills through the Senate, where he had served a majority leader longer than anyone in American history.

Last month, the oldest person ever to have served as president, celebrated another birthday. Ronald Reagan was elected by a landslide in 1980 and was reelected by a greater landslide in 1984. He is correctly reckoned to have won the Cold War without armed conflict, an accomplishment so vast that liberals consider it blase. When the Gipper took office in 1981, he was almost seventy years old - the oldest man ever to win election to the presidency.

What if he had won the White House earlier? Reagan came within a whisper of winning the Republican nomination in 1976, and given the striking contrast between how he manhandled Carter in the 1980 presidential debates and how inept Gerald Ford looked against Carter in 1976, it is a good bet that Reagan would have won the very close 1976 presidential election.

Ronald Reagan could have been elected president eight years earlier, and the consequences of that election for America could have been vast. Could Reagan have won the nomination in 1968? Yes. Reagan actually entered the Republican Convention with more votes in primaries than any other Republican candidate. Reagan, four years earlier, had given "The Speech" in praise of Barry Goldwater, and that speech electrified America.

While Republicans in 1964 rejected Barry Goldwater as a right-wing nut, by 1968 Goldwater was a hero to virtually all Republican leaders. When he appeared before the 1968 Convention, he received a genuine, strong and passionate welcome. No one, not even leftist commentators, could fail to note the courage, dignity and conviction of this great American.

Ronald Reagan was perceived in much the same light as Goldwater: principled, honorable and brave. But Ronald Reagan had also won a landslide election in the most populous state in America. He was a well known and well liked movie star. And he was the logical heir to the Goldwater mantle.

Nixon was the favorite of no one. He had not run as a conservative in 1960, but as an experienced leader (which, indeed, he was). Nixon's intellect, which was quite profound, was respected by friend and foe alike. But just as many Democrats mistrusted Clinton in 1992, many Republicans distrusted Nixon in 1968.

Ronald Reagan decided too late to enter the race for the Republican nomination. He was not even on the ballot in New Hampshire, a state which he almost won from incumbent president Ford in the 1976 primary and which he won easily in the 1980 primary over a crowded field. Ronald Reagan did not campaign in any state.

Critically, Reagan did not seek caucus delegates in the South, where he was wildly popular, or in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast states, where he was the regional favorite. Had Reagan run hard, there is an excellent chance that he would have won the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

Could he have won the presidency? The 1968 presidential election was one of the closest in American history, but this small plurality of the popular vote that went to Nixon was highly misleading. George Wallace, who ran to the right of Nixon, got over thirteen percent of the popular vote and carried five states (largely the very same states that Barry Goldwater had carried in the South four years earlier).

Liberals, who love nothing better than rewriting history, have said some amazing things about the 1968 election. Chris Matthews, for example, said that if Wallace had stayed out of the 1968 election, his votes would have gone to Hubert Humphrey, who would have then won the presidency.

It is hard to know when liberals are serious and ignorance or factious and lying. No one in the 1968 campaign believed that Wallace voters would have voted for Humphrey if Wallace had not been on the ballot. Democrat and Republican strategists agreed that the first ten percentage points of popular vote that Wallace received came entirely from Nixon voters, and that support beyond that came from labor union voters who would have voted for Humphrey over Nixon.

Wallace did not just run as an opponent of school busing, but as a patriotic anti-communist. General LeMay, who created the Strategic Air Command, was Wallace's running mate. The political party Wallace created was the American Party, and unlike Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, Wallace race a vigorous and effective campaign in every state of the union. What was his most powerful campaign theme? "There's no a dime's worth of difference between Nixon and Humphrey."

Humphrey ran as an unabashed liberal. He, by contrast, warned that "The very future of liberalism in America is in question!" Humphrey was a beloved figure among American liberals, and it is inconceivable that any liberals chose Nixon over Humphrey in 1968. Liberals loathed Nixon and loved Humphrey.

Unlike 1976 and 1992, elections in which southern Democrat candidates masked their ideology, the 1968 election had a liberal, a moderate conservative and a strong conservative. The latter two received fifty-eight percent of the vote, and Humphrey received a majority of the vote in only five states - Minnesota (his home state), Maine (his running mate's home state), Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Hawaii.

Nixon received a solid majority of 301 votes in the Electoral College, but even that understates how well Reagan would have done. The five states that George Wallace carried would have given Reagan another 46 electoral votes. Moreover, Humphrey carried Texas with an anemic forty-one percent of the vote.

Assuming that Ronald Reagan received the George Wallace vote, he would not only have won the election, but he would have won the election by a landslide. Would the Wallace voters have gone to Reagan? Almost certainly, yes. Reagan ran very well in the South in every primary and in every general election. Reagan was correctly perceived as the heir apparent to Barry Goldwater, who won in 1964 the very voters Wallace won in 1968.

What if this had occurred in 1968 and not over a decade later?
What if this had occurred in 1968 and not over a decade later?

Reagan might have done much more than that. In 1968, America was done with liberalism. The 1966 mid-term elections were a staggering blow to Democrats. The Democrat Convention in Chicago 1968 was an utter debacle that revealed deep divides within the party. Patriotic Democrats were furious at the anti-war movement and deeply disturbed by the race riots in the Great Society.

What they wanted to hear was a clear, powerful voice in defense of the American Dream. No political figure in the Twentieth Century made that case more persuasively than Ronald Reagan, and in 1968 Reagan was at the height of his rhetorical powers. Liberals always gravely underestimated the appeal of Ronald Reagan, and they would have done so in 1968 (it was assumed that Reagan would lose reelection as governor in 1970; he won by an even bigger landslide).

What would this have meant to America? During the four years of Nixon's Vietnam policy, American continued the halt on bombing North Vietnam imposed by LBJ a few days before the 1968 election - a cynical ploy to swing the election to Humphrey.

Reagan would have began bombing again, but he would have done more. Reagan would have allowed the military to decide how to fight and to win the war. When Nixon allowed bombing to be resumed in 1972, the North Vietnamese sought peace within a few weeks. Ronald Reagan would have unleashed the full power of the American military and won the Vietnam War.

Ronald Reagan would have also placed the Republican Party above his own ego. Nixon was concerned with Nixon. In 1972, when Nixon was winning a huge landslide, the Republican Party picked up a few paltry House seats and actually lost several Senate seats. Reagan invented the 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Another Republican.

This would have given the Republican Party much more muscle in Congress, and it could easily have led much sooner to the flipping of conservative Southern Democrats to the Republican Party. The eloquence of a committed conservative president, supported by a strong Republican Party, would have led to the dismantling of failed social programs and to the reduction of federal taxes twelve years earlier.

When President Reagan took office in 1980, things could not have been much worse. Within eight years, he had won the Cold War, revitalized the American economy, and lifted the spirit of America high again. If he had been elected in 1968, when America was not on the ropes economically or militarily, he would have ended communist aggression in Southeast Asia, actually built an anti-ballistic missile system, and prevented the calculated compromises of Nixon in domestic polices (EPA, food stamp program, revenue sharing, etc.) which still haunt us.

Soon, no doubt, this great American will leave us. Liberal historians will not be kind to him. But it is a testament to his true greatness that he might easily have entered the White House as a middle-aged man, and that he might have done more for America than any president since Washington.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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  • Person of the Century: FDR vs. RR by Joe Schembrie (December 13, 1999)
    Roosevelt and Reagan represent two different ideals, says Joe Schembrie, which explains a decision by Time Magazine
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