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Eugene McCarthy 1968.jpg
Campaign U.S. presidential election, 1968
Candidate Eugene McCarthy
U.S. Senator 1959–1971
Affiliation Democratic Party
Slogan Get Clean for Gene

Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota launched a campaign for the 1968 Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States in the latter part of 1967. The focus of his campaign throughout was an ending of the Vietnam War, and a withdrawal of American forces from the nation. The campaign appealed to youths, who were tired of the establishment and dissatisfied with government.

Early on, McCarthy was vocal in his intent to unseat the incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. His showing in the New Hampshire Primary, and impending victory in Wisconsin, persuaded the President to not seek re-election. But soon, the candidate was faced with challenges from Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Bobby Kennedy of New York, who both announced their candidacy.

Kennedy fought it out with McCarthy in the primaries, as Humphrey used favorite son stand-ins to help him win delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Kennedy was assassinated, leaving Humphrey as McCarthy's main challenger. But Humphrey's organization was too strong for McCarthy to overcome, whose anti-war campaign was split after the late entrance of Senator George McGovern of South Dakota.

Despite winning the popular vote, McCarthy lost to Humphrey at the 1968 Democratic National Convention amidst protests and riots.


Early stages

Months prior to his announcement, McCarthy hinted that he would challenge President Johnson for the Democratic nomination due to his contrasting views with the president on the Vietnam War. The Americans for Democratic Action announced they would support McCarthy's campaign if he decided to run. [1] Johnson took these mentions seriously, privately confiding to Democratic congressional leaders that McCarthy could gain the support of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Benjamin Spock and that his run would split the party. It was rumored that McCarthy had $100,000 pledged to use on the New Hampshire and Wisconsin primaries in the upcoming year. One politician explained to Johnson that McCarthy's run could be reminiscent of Estes Kefauver, whose 1952 campaign in the early primaries caused President Harry S. Truman to not seek re-election. [2]

Campaign developments

Senator Eugene McCarthy


Citing the importance of preventing President Johnson's nomination, and the continuation of the war in Vietnam, McCarthy entered his name into four Democratic presidential primaries on November 30, 1967. [3] Upon his entrance, the Senator articulated that he believed there was a "deepening moral crisis" in America with the rejection of the political system by citizens. As president, he hoped to "alleviate...this sense of political helplessness." A few days later, the Johnson administration made an announcement on the war in Vietnam that according to McCarthy was akin to an escalation, which he believed would just strengthen his own campaign. [4] The following week, rumors floated around the president's staff that the McCarthy run was a ploy to weaken Johnson and make it easier for Senator Robert F. Kennedy to defeat him. Kennedy had announced that he would not challenge Johnson for the nomination, but a presidential candidacy was not ruled out. [5] As 1967 came to a close, it was revealed that Senator McCarthy had missed more votes in Congress for the year while pursuing his presidential campaign, than most other senators, being present for only 66% of roll calls, short of the 85% average. [6]

January 1968

McCarthy started off the new year by making no promises about a potential challenge of the president on the Florida primary ballot, but he reaffirmed his goal to push the president in New Hampshire, where he stated that he would be on the ballot "no matter what happens." [7] The following day, the candidate appeared as the first guest of the half-hour ABC news series Issues and Answers, where the he discussed his views on pertinent campaign issues.[8] As President Johnson prepared for his annual State of the Union Address, McCarthy requested for equal time from television networks after the president discussed the McCarthy-Kennedy conspiracy theory the previous month. The request was rejected. [9]Later in the month, the Senator delivered a speech in front of 6,500 students at University Park, Pennsylvania where he criticized the Johnson administration for being "afraid to negotiate" with the North Vietnamese in the ongoing conflict with the nation. [10] This came as Bobby Kennedy commented that he would support Johnson as the nominee, even though his views more closely resembled McCarthy's, opining that the campaign could have a "healthy influence" on Johnson, whom he predicted to ultimately win the nomination. [11] Near the end of January, McCarthy campaigned in St. Louis, where he continued his anti-war rhetoric, describing the conflict in Vietnam as against "American tradition" and commented that "no nation has a right" to "destroy a nation" with the rationale of "nation building." The candidate then discussed his support for normalized relations with Cuba. [12] After seven weeks of campaigning and as January came to its close, McCarthy arrived at the conclusion that his speeches were coming across more as poetry than substantive campaign messages. As he traveled through California, a stop in Stanford was greeted by newspaper headlines that asked the candidate whether he "want[ed] to make righteous speeches...or end the Viet Nam War." As his candidacy continued, the senator and his staffers hoped to improve the campaign's "passion gap."[13]

February 1968

As McCarthy planned to visit Miami, Florida, Democratic bigwigs decided to stage their own rally in the state. It was unclear if the plan had developed from the White House, but diversion tactics were used to take away attention from a McCarthy appearance, when establishment Democrats scheduled a meeting of their own on the same days in Tallahassee. [14] The purpose of McCarthy's visit was to campaign and begin discussion about the presidential nominating slate for the May 28 Florida primary. [15] The Senator discussed civil rights on his trip, stating that "it would take 30 to 50 years of constant action and concern to carry out all promises to the emancipated Negro who has been treated as a colonial people in America." Following the speech, the Conference of Concerned Democrats unanimously decided to hand pledged delegates to the candidate for the state of Florida. [16] This came as an anonymous poll showed that no members of Congress described McCarthy as the strongest candidate for the Democratic nomination, instead bestowing the honor on President Johnson. [17] As the candidate gained the endorsement of the Americans for Democratic Action, the first time in 20 years that the organization did not support an incumbent Democratic president,[18] McCarthy announced that he would take part in the Pennsylvania primary, turning in 3,400 signatures on the filing deadline. [19]

March 1968

March kicked off with charges from the media that McCarthy's campaign was just dragging along. Cited was the candidate's tardy appearance on the Senate floor, arriving too late to end a Southern filibuster against a civil rights bill drafted by fellow Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale. [20] Despite the setback, three precincts in Minnesota elected McCarthy supported delegates to caucuses, to the detriment of Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. Next, President Johnson decided to abandon Massachusetts, giving 72 delegates to McCarthy. The candidate described the results as "encouraging." [21] At this point, he had been spending a large part of his time campaigning in New Hampshire, hoping to improve his standing before the state's critical primary. Meanwhile, President Johnson's campaign were circulating the slogan that "the communists in Vietnam are watching the New Hampshire primary...don't vote for fuzzy thinking and surrender." McCarthy likened this statement to McCarthyism in reference to Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. [22] Opinion polls prior to the New Hampshire primary showed that McCarthy's support stood at only 10% to 20%. Although he did not win the contest, McCarthy stunned spectators of the race by wining 42.2% of the vote to Johnson's 49.4%.[23] Media outlets described the results as a "moral victory" for McCarthy, [24] and influenced Bobby Kennedy's decision to enter the race on March 16. [25] Kennedy's announcement did not affect McCarthy's campaign. The candidate remained committed to "young people" who had supported his campaign all along, and remarked that he was "better qualified to run for the presidency" than Kennedy. [26] McCarthy set his sights on Wisconsin and began to prepare for the states April primary. He ran advertisements in newspapers throughout the state and included his platform. In it, he called for "more federal aid for education," collective bargaining rights for farmers, "a guaranteed minimum livable income for all Americans," the construction of "at least one million new housing units each year, and more "federal funds to stop pollution." [27] While campaigning in Wisconsin, the candidate criticized the government of South Vietnam, saying it would be "too kind" to label the entity as corrupt and a dictatorship. He then announced his intentions to enter the primaries in Indiana and Florida, and hoped to compete in California in the upcoming months. [28] Then, on March 31st, President Johnson made the surprise announcement that he was dropping out of the race and would not seek to be renominated for the presidency. [29]

April 1968

Actor Paul Newman at a McCarthy rally in Wisconsin

Since President Johnson had dropped out immediately prior to the Wisconsin Primary, McCarthy handily won but did not face his real challenger, Bobby Kennedy, who was ineligible for the ballot due to his recent entry to the race. [30] Polls suggested that McCarthy benefited the most from Johnson's withdrawal, reached 22% among the Democratic field, up eleven points, two behind Humphrey and fifteen behind Kennedy. [31] The candidate traveled to Pennsylvania later in the month, to prepare for the state's primary at the conclusion of April. He commented on North Korea's seizing of the USS Pueblo, stating his belief that the United States should "expect once in awhile to pay ransom...if you have ships adjacent to countries that don't respect international law." He clarified that he was not suggesting that the ransom should be paid, and remarked that President Johnson's use of negotiation was correct. He later compared his record to Kennedy, articulating that his accomplishments on civil rights were over a longer period than the senator. [32]On April 23, McCarthy won the Pennsylvania Primary, receiving more votes than Kennedy, whose name did not appear on the ballot but ran as a write-in candidate. [33]

May 1968

At the beginning of the month, McCarthy took advantage of Bobby Kennedy's fall in the polls, trailing the former frontrunner by two points for second place in the race behind Vice President Humphrey. At the time, the argument could have been made that McCarthy was more likely than his Democratic rivals to defeat Republican frontrunner Richard Nixon in a head to head matchup, leading the former Vice-President 40% to 37% in a Harris poll. [34] While campaigning in South Bend, Indiana prior to the state's primary, McCarthy criticized the approach of his two closest Democratic rivals. He stated that there were three kinds of national unity; Humphrey's approach of "run[ning] things together indiscriminately," Kennedy's approach of a "combination of separate interests...or groups," and his own approach of "call[ing] upon be as fully responsible as [they] can be," which the candidate labeled as the approach for 1968. McCarthy lost in Indiana but received 27% of the vote to Kennedy's 42%. [35] Four days later, McCarthy received the most votes in Time Magazine's national presidential primary. The poll counted votes of over 1 million students in more than 1,200 campuses. Kennedy was the closest, trailing the winner by more than 70,000 votes. [36] In regards to the results, McCarthy commented, "We've tested the enemy now, and we know his techniques...we know his weaknesses." [37] The next day, Kennedy defeated McCarthy in the Nebraska primary but it did not stall his effort. He reaffirmed that he would compete with Kennedy in Oregon, California and South Dakota. [38] He ended the month by defeating Kennedy in the Oregon primary 45% to 39%. [39]The victory allowed for the media to observe that the candidate was "back in the race as a major contender." The result forced eyes to shift toward the looming primaries in South Dakota and California held the next month. [40]

June 1968

McCarthy and Kennedy vigorously campaigned through California in the beginning of June, with the latter announcing he would exit the race if he lost the state's primary. The two candidates appeared in televised forums, which McCarthy criticized for not being in a debate format. [41] On June 5, Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles after winning both the California and South Dakota primaries. [42] McCarthy immediately canceled his campaign plans and was placed under heavy guard in his hotel. [43] Kennedy died the following day. [42] A large number of Kennedy delegates shifted to Humphrey following the assassination but popular opinion seemed to go to McCarthy. [44] Later in the month, Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, assessed the Democratic situation, stating that McCarthy did not have a chance and that Humphrey would be the party's nominee. [45]

July 1968

With the primaries wrapped up, McCarthy spent July attempting to woo uncommitted delegates and clarify his position on the issues. The candidate continued his strong anti-war sentiment, mentioning that he might travel to Paris, France to discuss peace with the North Vietnamese. Chief negotiators called the potential trip a mistake, and that the talks were too important "to interject partisan politics." [46] Next, the candidate was cited by the emergency committee for gun control chair John Glenn as being one of five presidential candidates that endorsed the group's movement to control firearms. McCarthy argued for a national registration of handguns, and the development of a system to sell mail order guns only to qualified individuals. He articulated that the sale of shotguns and rifles, should be left to the discretion of individual states. [47] The following week, the Senator proposed a "war on hunger" to help the millions of Americans the candidate claimed were starving. He stated that "our first concern is the health of each hungry individual." The Department of Agriculture disputed the Senator's claims. [48] Six days later, he made his way to Georgia, where he sought additional Democratic delegates to counter Vice President Humphrey's strong organization. [49] The previous day, the candidate had visited Pittsburgh and attended a rally hoping to win over Pennsylvania's Democratic delegates and the African-American vote. [50] McCarthy challenged Humphrey to a series of debates on an assortment of issues. The Vice-President accepted the invitation but modified the proposal by requesting there be only one debate prior to the Democratic National Convention. [51] As the month ended, and with the Democratic Convention speedily approaching, McCarthy tried to change a few rules of the convention, focusing a great deal on "unit voting" rule, which gave party bosses more control. The tactics were meant to compensate for Humphrey's lead over the delegates, and were previously used by Dwight Eisenhower in his successful 1952 campaign, while battling Robert Taft for the Republican nomination. [52]

August 1968

McCarthy's plan was complicated when Senator George McGovern of South Dakota entered the race as the successor to the legacy of Bobby Kennedy. The entrance had the effect of splitting the anti-Humphrey vote. [53] This came as allegations were thrown at the Democratic National Chairman by the McCarthy campaign that Humphrey was being given preferential treatment, and that their candidate was being short-changed. They asked for the chairman John Bailey's resignation. He rejected the claims stating that the two candidates were receiving "exactly the same treatment in hotel space, amphitheatre space, telephone service, tickets, transportation and every other phase of convention activity." [54] As the eve of the convention dawned, Humphrey appeared to hold a lead over McCarthy among the delegates with McGovern in a distant third, but with many delegates still uncommitted, the three men battled it out. Meanwhile on the streets of Chicago, anti-war protests raged, as 6,000 federal troops and 18,000 Illinois National Guard defended the premise of the convention. [55] Humphrey won the nomination on the first ballot, despite the fact that McCarthy had won a plurality of the primary vote. Riots intensified, and supporters of McCarthy urged the candidate to run a fourth party campaign against Nixon, Humphrey and George Wallace. The candidate announced he would not run such a campaign, and stepped down while denying an endorsement to Humphrey. At the end of his campaign, McCarthy stated that he "set out to prove...that the people of this country could be educated and make a decent judgment...but evidently this is something the politicians were afraid to face up to." [56]



McCarthy's refusal to endorse Humphrey wavered somewhat by October, as the former candidate laid out conditions for the Democratic nominee. These included a shift in his stance on the Vietnam War, a change of the military draft, and a reform of the Democratic machine politics. Humphrey discussed the demands with McCarthy via telephone, and responded that he was "not prone to start meeting conditions," but that he states his "own case" as a candidate. [59] At the end of October, McCarthy announced that he would vote for Humphrey, but would go no further than that. [60] Nixon eventually won the election, and McCarthy received 20,721 write-in votes in California [61] and 2,751 in Arizona, where he was listed as the nominee of the anti-war "New Party." [62]McCarthy also ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972, but soon dropped out. [63] He mounted independent and small party campaigns in 1976 and 1988, but did not receive much notice. During the 1980s, McCarthy was a supporter of the Reagan administration, [64] and tried once again for the Democratic nomination in 1992. [63]


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  2. ^ Allen, Robert S.; Scott, Paul (November 15, 1967), "McCarthy disturbs White House", Rome News-Tribune (Rome, Georgia): 3,,1547138&dq=eugene+mccarthy+1968  
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  17. ^ "Poll Shows Congressmen Favor Rocky", St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, Florida): 1, February 4, 1968,,1656153&dq=eugene+mccarthy+1968  
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  22. ^ Pearson, Drew (March 12, 1968), "Gene McCarthy Gets Praise for Views on McCarthyism", Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, Washington): 3,,2863720&dq=eugene+mccarthy+1968  
  23. ^ "Unforeseen Eugene", Time Magazine, March 22, 1968,,9171,828460,00.html  
  24. ^ "LBJ Comes Out Slugging", The Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, Florida): 11, March 19, 1968,,3849108&dq=moral-victory+mccarthy  
  25. ^ "Both Parties Adjusting To Kennedy Emergence", The Free-Lance Star (Fredericksburg, Virginia): 2, March 16, 1968,,1519212&dq=eugene+mccarthy+1968  
  26. ^ "TART, TOUGH & TELEGENIC", Time Magazine, March 22, 1968,,9171,828462,00.html  
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  28. ^ "McCarthy Kennedy Go, Go", The Daily Collegian (University Park, PA) 68 (92): 1, March 29, 1968,  
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  47. ^ "Candidates Back Gun Laws", The Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin): 8, July 8, 1968,,1383084&dq=eugene+mccarthy+1968  
  48. ^ "McCarthy Urges War on Hunger", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania): 6, July 12, 1968,,1830594&dq=eugene+mccarthy+1968  
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