John Sides’s posting earlier today (here) correcting the misimpression that Hillary Clinton’s showing in New Hampshire was hampered by her position on the war in Iraq put our colleague Eric Lawrence vaguely in mind of a similar misimpression about a New Hampshire primary result back in the days of yore. Because what Eric was thinking of occurred before he was born, he turned to me — the oldest person he knows — for guidance on the iffy assumption that I would have a clear memory of these events. Surprisingly, I do.
In 1968, Eugene McCarthy mounted a quixotic challenge to incumbent President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination. Legions of volunteers signed on, including lots of scruffy ones (remember that this was the late 1960s) who pledged to be “clean for Gene,” shaved their beards, donned respectable-looking clothing, and went out and campaigned for him. (Several months later, many of them were rewarded for their efforts by being brutalized by members of Chicago’s finest.) Anti-Johnson sentiment was running high in a time of dissent, disorder, and violence.
McCarthy entered the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary and scored what the media interpreted as a stunning victory, even though, in terms of cold, hard numbers, he lost: Johnson, as a write-in, got 48% to McCarthy’s 42%. McCarthy’s unexpectedly strong showing (which is generally seen as having scared Johnson out of the race and having enticed Robert Kennedy into the race — but those are stories for another day) was widely interpreted as an indication of the breadth and depth of dovish sentiment vis-a-vis the war in Vietnam.
It certainly was reflective of widespread disenchantment with the Johnson administration. However, the idea that McCarthy’s showing was a mandate for de-escalation — an idea that continues to hold sway four decades later — appears, on the basis of the best available evidence, to be simply incorrect.
Here’s the best evidence, as it was detailed back in 1969 in an article in (gasp!) the American Political Science Review by Philip Converse, Warren Miller, Jerrold Rusk, and Arthur Wolfe (“Continuity and Change in American Politics: Parties and Issues in the 1968 Election,” APSR 63 (December 1969), 1083-1105).
bq. Sample survey data from New Hampshire at the time of the primary show some expected patterns … but also some rather unexpected ones as well. First, the vote among Democrats split toward Johnson or McCarthy in obvious ways according to expressions of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with Administration performance in general and its Vietnam policy in particular. The McCarthy vote in New Hampshire certainly reflected a groundswell of anger at the Johnson administration, and an expression of desire for a change which was simply reiterated in November. Surprisingly, however, in view of McCarthy’s clear and dissenting ‘dove’ position on Vietnam, the vote he drew in New Hampshire could scarcely be labelled a ‘peace vote,’ despite the fact that such a conclusion was frequently drawn. There was, of course, some had-core peace sentiment among New Hampshire Democrats that was drawn quite naturally to McCarthy. Among his supporters in the primary, however, those who were unhappy with the Johnson admistration for not pursuing a harder line against Hanoi outnumbered those advocating a withdrawal from Vietnam by nearly a three to two margin! [exclamation point in the original; bolding mine] Thus the McCarthy tide in New Hampshire was, to say the least, quite heterogeneous in its policy preferences: the only common denominator seems to have been a deep dissatisfaction with the Johnson administration. …
bq. [M]ore often than not, McCarthy voters were upset that Johnson had failed to scourge Vietnam a good deal more vigorously with American military might, which is to say they took a position diametrically opposed to that of their chosen candidate. … [M]any of the New Hampshire people fuming about Vietnam in a hawkish mood voted for McCarthy without having any idea of where he stood on the matter. Hence while they may have voted directly counter to their own policy preferences, they at least did not know this was what they were doing. [My editorial comment: In other words, we should be pleased that they were just ignorant, not stupid, even in light of what Converse et al. concede as “how difficult it must have been to avoid knowledge” of McCarthy’s position, “particularly if one had more than the most casual interest in the Vietnam question.”]
Sometimes the facts get in the way of a good story, and all too often the story that lives on is the good one rather than the factual one. Thus the Converse et al. analysis gathers dust in the library stacks and is securely guarded from prying eyes behind the gate at JSTOR, while the standard-and-incorrect interpretation continues to hold sway.