Midterm Elections: 1966 Midterms Signal a Realignment, Shaping Today’s PartiesWatch the videoSee the video and lesson plan
ARCHIVAL (WISTV, 1966):
BARRY GOLDWATER: There’s nothing left, ladies and gentlemen, nothing left of the principles that your fathers and your grandfathers and your great-grandfathers stood for in the Democratic Party at the national level.
MATTHEW DALLEK (POLITICAL HISTORIAN, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY): Today, many Americans consider the Republican Party to be synonymous with conservatives and the Democratic Party to be synonymous with liberals. But in 1966, that was not the case.
ARCHIVAL (WISTV, 1966):
STROM THURMOND: This year, I will be seeking nomination and reelection as a Republican.
MATTHEW DALLEK: In the 1966 midterms you see the beginnings of these shifts. And in that sense, it was one of the more significant midterm elections of the past 50, 60 years.
NEWS REPORT: The 1966 election chooses governors, senators, and congressmen.
ANDREW BUSCH (PROFESSOR OF GOVERNMENT, CLAREMONT MCKENNA COLLEGE): 1966 was a significant year in American electoral history because the Republicans had really been knocked down hard in 1964.
NEWS REPORT: Barry Goldwater: What kind of man is he? Where did he come from? What does he stand for?
NARRATION: In 1964, the Republican candidate for president was an ultraconservative senator from Arizona. Barry Goldwater pledged to fight communism abroad, and crime at home. He aimed to slash federal spending and give states more rights to govern themselves.
ANDREW BUSCH: Barry Goldwater represented a change for Republicans.
NEWS REPORT: Goldwater shapes his campaign to one theory – that there is a smothered conservative majority in America.
ANDREW BUSCH: They wanted to really create a stark contrast and present a more conservative view.
BARRY GOLDWATER: Let there be a choice. Right now and in clear, understandable terms.
NARRATION: But on Election Day in 1964, Goldwater and his supporters were dealt a crushing blow by sitting Democratic President Lyndon Johnson.
NEWS REPORT: In the early returns from Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Vermont and Maryland, the senator is running well behind the president.
MATTHEW DALLEK: After Goldwater’s landslide defeat come proclamations that the conservative movement is dead. And ’66 is the first electoral moment when we see that, hey, that’s actually not true.
NARRATION: Just below the surface of Goldwater’s devastating defeat at the national level was a regional trend that did not go unnoticed by Republican party leaders. Of the six states that Goldwater won, all but his home state of Arizona were located in the Deep South.
MATTHEW DALLEK: The big issue, of course, was race. Southern conservative Democrats were dead set against the federal government, as they would put it, imposing civil rights on the segregationist South.
SAM FULWOOD (JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR, WAKING FROM THE DREAM: MY LIFE IN THE BLACK MIDDLE CLASS): I like to think of the ’60s was the period when Black Americans became fully citizens in the country that they were already citizens in. The 1954 Brown school desegregation case set loose an avalanche of social activism, this integrationist push. The idea was that if Blacks and whites interacted with each other on par, much of the discrimination and prejudice and stereotyping that led to inequality would go away.
STROM THURMOND: These damnable proposals under the guise of so-called civil rights.
SAM FULWOOD: But, for the most part, to be a Southern politician was to be a Democrat – and to be a segregationist.
NARRATION: For generations, Southern politics had been dominated by a conservative, segregationist wing of the Democratic Party, a legacy reaching back to the Civil War, when the South sought to secede from the country to preserve slavery.
ARCHIVAL (ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF ARCHIVES AND HISTORY, 1-14-63):
GEORGE WALLACE (GOVERNOR OF ALABAMA): And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.
MATTHEW DALLEK: Within the Democratic Party, conservative Southern segregationists had made a deal, basically, that they were O.K. with the Democrats’ expansion of some government economic benefits, especially ones that helped the South, as long as they maintained support for segregation.
NARRATION: As the civil rights movement sought more and more progress, there was a growing divide between conservative Southern Democrats — arguing that states should have the rights to make their own laws — and their Northern liberal party mates.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: My fellow Americans, I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
NARRATION: When President Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, signed the sweeping Civil Rights Act, after a bruising battle in Congress, an aide recalled Johnson privately feared white Southerners would depart for the Republican Party.
ARCHIVAL (LBJ LIBRARY, 1966):
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I can think of nothing more dangerous, or more divisive or more self-destructive than the effort to prey on what is called “white backlash.”
SAM FULWOOD: He understood that you have progress, but there will be a price to pay. There will be a backlash against that.
NARRATION: In South Carolina, Senator Strom Thurmond, a longtime Democrat and staunch segregationist, officially switched parties — an early sign that change was afoot.
ARCHIVAL (UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA, 1966):
STROM THURMOND: I chose the Republican Party to more effectively represent the beliefs of South Carolinians.
MATTHEW DALLEK: In 1966, Strom Thurmond was elected as a Republican for the first time and we do begin to see the South, parts of the solid Democratic South, begin to break away from the Democratic Party.
NARRATION: The one-party South was beginning to shift. Voters from Tennessee to Arkansas to Florida elected their first Republicans to various political offices in nearly 100 years.
ARCHIVAL (UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA, 1965):
BO CALLAWAY: The Republican Party is a conservative party.
NARRATION: The 1966 midterms also shaped the national Republican party.
ANDREW BUSCH: If you look at the 1966 election, one of the really interesting features of it is the fact that it was a kind of spawning ground for future Republican presidents. It was the starting point, you could say, of the Republican presidential era that followed.
NARRATION: In 1966, failed Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon had been left for dead in American politics. Now flexing a more conservative persona, targeting rising crime and what he called “racial disorders” in America’s cities, he left his home in California to campaign for scores of GOP candidates across the country.
ANDREW BUSCH: He credits his comeback in 1968 largely to the fact that he was an effective campaigner for Republicans in the 1966 campaigns.
RICHARD NIXON: Winning’s a lot more fun.
NARRATION: But the biggest story involving a California Republican in 1966 was a Hollywood star who decided to run for governor.
ARCHIVAL (NATIONAL ARCHIVES, 1968):
RONALD REAGAN: It’s time that some people were reminded that actors are people.
ANDREW BUSCH: Reagan was taking some of the Goldwater ideas, but presenting them in a more palatable way, with a cheerful demeanor. And was much more successful as a result.
MATTHEW DALLEK: What we begin to see then are a number of white conservative Democrats bolting the Democratic Party and supporting people like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. They identify with conservative Republicans as anti-big government.
NARRATION: After cruising to victory in 1966, in 1980 Reagan went nationwide as the new face of American conservatism.
RONALD REAGAN: A great national crusade to make America great again.
NARRATION: Traveling to Mississippi on his presidential campaign, he promised to support “state’s rights,” and courted old Southern Democrats still on the fence about voting Republican.
RONALD REAGAN: I was a Democrat most of my life myself.
NARRATION: The writing was on the wall – it would take decades, but by the Reagan era, the Republicans were on their way to a solid lock on the South.
ANDREW BUSCH: 1966 represents an important point, but just one point on a long scale of change. The Democratic Party was generally liberal, but then it had these Southern conservatives. The Republican Party was generally conservative, but it had these Northeastern liberals.
What has happened was this sorting out where the South gradually became more Republican, the Northeast gradually more Democratic. What it meant was both parties became more ideologically consistent.
MATTHEW DALLEK: The parties kind of sort themselves out. And that is one factor contributing to what we now know today as partisan polarization.
We are still living in the world of that mid-1960s political environment in many ways.
PROTESTERS: Stop the count.
MATTHEW DALLEK: And we see the parties reflect aspects of the debates from that era.