This is the final article in my series called “Biggest Losers,” profiling the men who lost the ultimate political contest–an election for President of the United States–and lost big. I barely need to recount the long litany of disaster we’ve come through so far: Greeley (1872), McGovern (1972), Parker (1904), Landon (1936), Dole (1996), Mondale (1984), Dukakis (1988), Davis (1924) and McCain (2008). It’s fitting we end here, because I’ve saved the best for last. There’s barely a comparison anywhere in American history to the magnitude of the defeat of one Barry Morris Goldwater. Though Mondale wound up with a fewer raw number of electoral votes 20 years later, his popular vote result was significantly better; Goldwater, however, wound up on the short end of both, and how. Indeed, never in modern political history has a Presidential candidate suffered a more brutal, overwhelming and humiliating rejection by the American people.

How did it happen? It wasn’t really that Lyndon B. Johnson, the sitting President and Democratic nominee, was so popular in 1964; he was, but that’s only part of the story. In looking at the whole picture I was amazed by how many factors went into it. Hubris, political tone-deafness, bizarre ideologies, abrasive personalities, and a lot of plain old bad luck were the spices in which the brew of Goldwater’s epic defeat were cooked. Interestingly, though, the story begins not with Goldwater or even Johnson but with private decisions made by two men far-removed from the Presidency.

nelson rockefeller

Nelson Rockefeller, who went on to be Vice-President of the United States in the 1970s, lost his status as the 1964 Republican front-runner.

The first of those decisions was a tragic and selfish one. Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24-year-old warehouse clerk in Dallas, decided to make his own rage, angst, impotence and political anger everyone else’s problem by pumping a few rounds from his Manlicher-Carcano rifle into the skull of President John F. Kennedy. This made VP Lyndon Johnson the new President, and importantly also gave him a mandate to pass historic civil rights legislation as a tribute to the fallen President. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a great step forward for the country, but it also severely alienated racists in the Southern states, who before 1964 had tended to vote Democratic. After 1964 they began to cross over to the Republican Party. This should have inured to the advantage of any Republican candidate that year.

The second decision was a personal one, by Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York, to marry a woman named Margaretta Murphy, better known as Happy. Rockefeller was the standard-bearer of the moderate/liberal part of the Republican party, the sort of “country club Republican” that Eisenhower had exemplified in the 1950s: conservative on some issues, but interested far more in compromise and common-sense solutions than ideological ones. Rockefeller stood in contrast to the conservative wing of the Republican Party, whose champion was Barry Goldwater, Senator from Arizona. Richard Nixon had been able to unite these two wings when he ran in 1960 (and would again in 1968), but when he bowed out of the ’64 race, it was either-or. Rockefeller’s divorce of his first wife and marriage to Happy, who was 15 years younger than him and rumored to have been his lover before they married, alienated a lot of traditional Republican voters. This was Goldwater’s opening. But he couldn’t quite convert at first, losing the New Hampshire primary, incredibly, to a write-in candidate, Henry Cabot Lodge.

vietnam air power pd

Though it hadn’t yet become the gruesome holocaust it became after 1965, America’s involvement in Vietnam grew decisively in 1964, with sea, air and limited land forces involved.

After winning victories in primaries in the South and West–traditionally conservatives’ strongholds–Goldwater and Rockefeller headed for a showdown in California. Unfortunately for Rocky, his wife gave birth to their child a few days before the vote, re-raising the adultery issue in the headlines. Even with this gift from a stork Goldwater barely eked out a 51-49% victory in the primary. Consistent with his brash personality, Goldwater claimed victory and went to the Republican Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco openly derisive of Rockefeller and his supporters. The noxious convention was marked by boos and catcalls between the two sides, some oblique attacks in speeches by each candidate against the other, and a general chaotic atmosphere. But when the dust cleared the conservatives were ecstatic. Their champion and savior, Barry Goldwater, was at the head of the national ticket. Goldwater immediately tried to stick it to LBJ, his arch-enemy, by choosing as his running mate William Miller, whose chief qualification was that LBJ hated him.

The problem with Goldwater was that his views were way, way out of step with mainstream American political opinion in 1964. He was a Libertarian before libertarianism was chic, and his adherence to conservative ideological purity left him out in the cold on most issues Americans cared about. To Goldwater, labor unions were an anathema, everything government could do business could do better, and the only good Commie was a dead Commie. While not personally racist, his view that “state’s rights” should trump almost all federal power was in effect a repudiation of the Civil Rights Act and most federal efforts to advance equality. His fervor against Communism was positively frightening. He suggested that he wouldn’t rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam, which scared the hell out of ordinary people. Democrats mocked his campaign slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” with a snarky rejoinder: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” LBJ was happy to let these perceptions take root. Remaining largely among the fray, the President’s surrogates and especially his ad men painted Goldwater as a dangerous unhinged radical, unconcerned with poverty or racial equality and untrustworthy with military and foreign policy responsibility.

Goldwater’s campaign advertising was surprisingly ineffective–it was hard for him to convert on any issue against LBJ, including Cuba, as this ad attempts to do.

Ironically the two most memorable take-homes from the campaign–the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the infamous “Daisy” ad–probably didn’t swing many votes in the end. In August 1964 the Johnson administration responded to a confusing series of events in Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin by asking Congress for a resolution allowing LBJ to wage war there should he choose. He didn’t so choose in 1964, but after the election was over he used his authority to the hilt. In September LBJ’s campaign ran a shocking political commercial that seemed to suggest Goldwater (without mentioning him) might ultimately be responsible for global nuclear annihilation. The ad was so inflammatory it was only aired once. It probably didn’t have that much of an impact on raw numbers. Most Americans needed no convincing that Goldwater was out of touch with their values. Even without the ad Johnson could expect a huge victory.

The word “decisive” is totally inadequate to describe the result of the election. Johnson turned Goldwater into a grease spot and then quite effortlessly mopped up what was left of the grease. His only solid support came from the deep South, where he was the first Republican to win in many districts since Reconstruction. Antipathy for the Civil Rights Act was a major factor. Outside the South, Goldwater carried only his own state of Arizona. That was it. The crushing 61.1% of the popular vote that went Johnson’s way was the biggest popular landslide in American presidential history. The suction of Goldwater going under was so powerful that it pulled down numerous Republican candidates at the Congressional level too, leaving LBJ with virtually a rubber-stamp Democratic Congress.

The “Daisy ad” became the most infamous political commercial in American history. But did it really sway that many votes?

Despite his abrasiveness Goldwater was surprisingly magnanimous in defeat. He returned to the Senate, serving throughout the 1960s, 70s and even into the 80s, winning his final Senate campaign–though a surprisingly close one–in 1980. That year Ronald Reagan, who in 1964 begged his countrymen to vote for Goldwater in a famous televised speech, was elected President, but strangely despite Goldwater’s arch-conservatism he was curiously out of step with modern (post-1980) Republicans–especially those influenced by the Religious Right, whom Goldwater steadfastly opposed. He retired from the Senate in 1987 and died of a stroke in 1998. He left behind a huge collection of Native American kachina dolls. Seriously. He did.

Thanks to everyone who read, shared, commented on and enjoyed the articles in the Biggest Loser series. Learning more from a failure than from a success doesn’t just describe science: sometimes it works in history too.

The photos used in this article are, to my knowledge, in the public domain.