Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What accounted for Reagan's win in '66?

A mere two years after conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater was decisively defeated by Lyndon "Great Society" Johnson in the presidential campaign, one of Goldwater's principal supporters, Ronald Reagan, buried a two term governor of California by over a million votes in the general election.  How are we to account for this? 

Some cite Reagan's charisma as a factor; But, of course, this is a difficult trait to quantify.  Some found Reagan charismatic...while others maintain to this day that he was a bumbling fool.  

Reagan himself emphasized the role of party unity in the 1966 race.  It was a major theme of his campaign from the beginning; And, by the summer of '66 California Senate GOP leader, John McCarthy noted, "I’ve never seen the Republican Party so united.” (Lewis, F. (1966, July 1). Washington report)

As important as party unity is, Republican kumbaya was hardly a ubiquitous goal in 1966.   After perusing the outcome of a number of races across the country, NY Times political reporter Tom Wicker concluded, "…the Republican Party is still a house divided and cannot yet look forward to waging a unified national campaign this year or in 1968” (Wicker,T. (1966, July 1). Republicans: Still a house divided)  Less than a week later, Governor George Romney of Michigan seized the opportunity afforded by a Reagan-sponsored reception for GOP governors to draw a distinct line between Reagan and himself.
Romney asked what the rest of the Republican Governors were wondering about Reagan...: what are his views on civil rights?  When Reagan replied that he…opposed the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, Romney voiced publicly what the other Republican Governors were saying privately:  Reagan’s civil rights stance might be just fine for California but it just wouldn’t wash in Michigan. (Evans, R. & Novak, R. (1966, July 8). Romney active at meetings and looks like no. 1 name.)
A third possible explanation--and one that seems to have more evidentiary backing--is to see Reagan's landslide as part of a larger (I would argue anti-Johnson) trend.  For example, though the Democrats remained in control of the U.S. Congress, Republicans took three Senate seats and 47 House seats.  (Wikipedia: United States Senate Elections, 1966; Wikipedia: United States House of Representatives Elections, 1966).  The Washington Post called it, "the [Democrats'] worst defeat in 20 years." (Divided Democrats skeptical of LBJ) And David Lawrence observed:
Republicans got 54 percent of the total vote in the 35 states where there were gubernatorial contests.  They won 23 of the 35 and now have 25 governorships, instead of 17.  The Republicans also apparently gained 677 seats in state legislatures, compared with a loss of 529 two years ago.  Republicans controlled both houses of only six state legislatures last year, but now will control 17. (Lawrence, D. (1966, November 16). Many Republicans in 1968 presidential field.)
Candidate charisma, party unity, and voter frustration...I suspect that each of these played a factor in the political downfall of "the giant slayer," but it seems that exasperation with the real world consequences of unchecked liberalism was the primary motivator.  We've seen it happen before.  Let's hope that come November 2012, we get to watch it happen again.

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