It certainly looked like a disaster: President Lyndon B. Johnson crushed his conservative opponent, Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, in the 1964 presidential race, receiving 61% of the popular vote and winning 44 states for a total of 486 electoral votes.
Johnson carried with him 28 Democratic senators and 295 congressmen, giving Democrats a 68-to-32 majority in the Senate and a 295-to-140 margin in the House of Representatives, the biggest Democratic House majority since the high point of the New Deal in 1936.
Supposed Death of Conservatism
The President won overwhelmingly every geographical region except the Deep South and every voting group except Republicans. It made no difference whether they were male or female, white or black, blue collar or white collar, under 20 or over 60 — everyone voted for Johnson by wide margins. In the 108-year history of the Republican Party, only two presidential candidates received a lower percentage of the popular vote than Goldwater’s 38.5% — John C. Fremont, the GOP’s first standard-bearer in 1856, and Alf Landon in 1936.
Not bothering to conceal their satisfaction, political experts solemnly proclaimed the death of conservatism.
Walter Lippmann, the reigning pundit of the time, wrote that “the returns prove the falsity of the claim … that there is a great silent latent majority of ‘conservative’ Republicans who will emerge as soon as the Republican party turns its back on ‘me-tooism’ and offers them a ‘choice.’” The New York Times’ James Reston declared that “Barry Goldwater not only lost the presidential election … but the conservative cause as well.” Political scientists Nelson W. Polsby and Aaron B. Wildavsky warned that if the Republican Party continued to nominate conservatives such as Goldwater, it would continue to lose so badly and “we can expect an end to a competitive two-party system.”
There were sharp dissents to these obituaries from the right, led by Ronald Reagan, who argued that “the landslide majority did not vote against the conservative philosophy, they voted against a false image our liberal opponents successfully mounted.” Former California Republican Sen. William Knowland insisted that a political party that polls more than 27 million votes “is neither bankrupt nor on its deathbed.”
The eminent political historian Theodore White cautioned liberals not to be too celebratory, writing: “Again and again in American history it has happened that the losers of the presidency contributed almost as much to the permanent tone and dialogue of politics as did the winners.”
Transformed American Politics
As we know from Reagan’s landslide conservative victories in 1980 and 1984 and the historic Republican capture of the House of Representatives in 1994, White was right. But what was there about the 1964 campaign that made it not the end of the conservative cause but the beginning of a political revolution that has transformed American politics?
J. William Middendorf II provides an authoritative answer in his splendid insider’s account of the Goldwater bid for the presidency for which he was the treasurer and a major fund-raiser starting in 1962 with the “Draft Goldwater” movement, A Glorious Disaster, Middendorf makes the following key points:
- Goldwater was the first presidential candidate since the New Deal to challenge the central liberal credo that government should be the court of first resort in the solution of the nation’s economic problems. In speech after speech, Goldwater made it clear that he was not merely interested in slowing down but in rolling back the welfare state and without delay.
- Inspired by Goldwater’s bold rhetoric, thousands of young conservatives became involved in politics for the first time. Many of today’s conservative leaders — from members of Congress to think tank presidents — earned their political spurs in 1964.
- The Goldwater campaign pioneered the use of small-dollar donations, generating “some 1.5 million contributions” for the primaries and the general campaign. Those contributors became committed supporters of the conservative movement. No other political movement in American history has ever had so wide and deep a financial base.
The Goldwater campaign, Middendorf writes, brought about a marked shift in Republican philosophy and geography — “from liberal to conservative, and from the Northeast to the South and West.” He argues that without Goldwater “there would have been no Reagan or Bush Administrations — nor even, perhaps, the centrist administration of Bill Clinton.”
Although admiring of Goldwater, Middendorf is candid about the Arizona senator’s flaws as a presidential candidate — needlessly blunt and often irritable with supporters — and as a manager, he relied too much on a “well-meaning but inexperienced and headstrong campaign staff of longtime cronies.”
But Middendorf stresses that more contributory to Goldwater’s decisive defeat was that he was (a) sabotaged by liberal Republicans who wanted to retain control of “their” party, (b) damaged by the illegal actions of President Johnson (who, for example, ordered the FBI to bug the Goldwater campaign plane), and (c) undercut by a hostile press horrified at the prospect of a Goldwater presidency.
After 1964, Bill Middendorf went on to serve in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan Administrations as secretary of the Navy, ambassador to the Netherlands, U.S. representative to the Organization of American States, and U.S. representative to the European Community — all important assignments. But it was as the treasurer and key fund-raiser of a seemingly quixotic presidential campaign that Middendorf made his most significant contribution to American history. We are fortunate to have his lively and knowledgeable memoir of a glorious chapter in the story of the American conservative movement.