Surveying the 2016 political landscape, one cannot help but notice the insurgent feeling within the Republican Party (GOP). Voters seem drawn to outsiders like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in large numbers out of sheer frustration with the party and politics as usual. Similarly, in 1964, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination for president because of his popularity among rank-and-file conservatives not his popularity with party leaders. His nomination reflected emerging changes in the party system. In the early 1960s, the Republican Party still contained liberal and moderate members while the Democratic Party still had conservative members. As such, both parties, at the national level, worked to placate their diverse membership. International developments related to the Cold War and domestic developments related to the Civil Rights Movement made it more difficult for both parties to do so. Conservative voters increasingly looked to the GOP to champion their views. They found it difficult to convince party leaders of their views and their strength. And so, they looked for another path to the presidency.
The Republicans had nominated Richard Nixon, whose reputation as an anticommunist moderate seemed to fit the needs of the party, in 1960. His narrow loss to John F. Kennedy revealed cracks developing in the GOP. Conservative Republicans could not bring themselves to support Nixon because he was prone to engage in liberal “me-tooism.” After the election, conservative political strategist F. Clifton White worked with Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook, National Review publisher William A. Rusher, and others to move the party in a more conservative direction. Initially the group did not back a specific candidate, but rather focused on building support at the local level for conservative solutions. They did, though, see Barry Goldwater as the most appealing person for their cause. The Arizona Senator promoted conservative ideas with his books The Conscience of a Conservative and Why Not Victory? as well as his public statements. Moreover, while he chaired the Senate Campaign Committee, he still seemed to exist outside the party establishment.
White’s group never doubted Goldwater’s conservative credentials, but they remained unsure he would seek the nomination. Goldwater supported White’s effort to champion conservatism, but he steadfastly refused to declare himself a candidate. His refusal resulted in the formation of the National Draft Goldwater Committee in 1963. Across the country, most especially in the Sunbelt, volunteers canvassed for Goldwater with an eye on upcoming primaries and state conventions. Simultaneously, businessmen, who benefitted from the post-World War II economic boom, gave money to the cause. Goldwater’s message about how the government should be the servant, not the master, resonated with states’ rights advocates as well as free market capitalists.
Throughout 1963, Goldwater contemplated how to respond to the growing support for his candidacy, and increasingly, he fell sway to those who told him he had a duty to run. John F. Kennedy’s assassination, or more specifically the likelihood Lyndon Johnson would win the Democratic nomination, temporarily caused the senator to pull back. Goldwater thought Johnson, another southerner, would siphon off his votes. However, Johnson’s apparent backing for civil rights legislation, something Goldwater saw as unconstitutional, pushed him to announce his candidacy formally in January 1964. Although moderate and liberal Republicans looked for ways to stop Goldwater, he won the nomination and secured a conservative platform. Nevertheless, from the moment he entered the race, Goldwater’s chances for victory were slim. Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to fulfill Kennedy’s legacy as part of his campaign made supporting any other course of action seem almost unpatriotic. Still, Goldwater’s defeat came less from Johnson’s policies than from missteps within his campaign.
Goldwater refused to temper his rhetoric after he won the nomination to woo moderate voters. He knew enough of politics to understand proposals to alter the status quo would be difficult to achieve. Still, he wanted voters to grapple with the possible alternatives to liberalism. When accepting the nomination, he said “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Democrats (and a few Republicans) played up the negative and possibly even dangerous tone of his message. Goldwater also remained highly suspicious of the Eastern Establishment, which he believed had taken control of the GOP. He surrounded himself with advisers from Arizona and shunned advice from the party’s best political operatives. Goldwater’s inner-circle saw men like White as champions of the establishment, when they were not. After his nomination, Goldwater worked to build support for conservatism within the Republican National Committee. He replaced long-time campaign operatives with conservative true believers who failed to grasp the role the RNC played in directing the campaign at the local and state level, which in turn left him without a means to secure votes in the general election.
Voters in 1964 turned out in large numbers to support Lyndon Johnson, who took 61 percent of the popular vote to his opponent’s 39 percent. Barry Goldwater’s defeat, though, did not dim the hopes of true believers. Conservative pundits and political operatives blamed lack of party support rather than Goldwater’s message for his defeat. Russell Kirk and Frank Meyer, widely respected conservative theorists and frequent contributors to National Review, took comfort in the possibilities for conservatism after 1964. Kirk concluded Goldwater’s campaign showed “a gap in the walls of the ‘liberal’ fortress.” Meanwhile, Meyer believed the Republican Party could serve as “institutional vehicle for conservatism” if conservatives could overcome the strategic problems. In 1967, during an episode of Firing Line, Richard Nixon and William F. Buckley discussed how a more conservative Republican Party could secure future electoral victories. Buckley called for a “seductive spokesman” who in Nixon’s words could present proposals in an exciting fashion and unite the party.
Republican failure to capture the White House in 1964 paved the way for Richard Nixon’s nomination in 1968. While not all conservatives loved Richard Nixon (as evidenced by their lackluster support in 1960 and their persistence in looking to Ronald Reagan in 1968), most recognized that he possessed the greatest potential for victory over the Democratic Party. Conservatives put a great deal of faith in Nixon, namely that he could undermine the appeal of liberalism and fight communism effectively. Nixon, of course, disappointed conservatives on numerous occasions. And the lessons learned from experiences with both Goldwater and Nixon, about the need for understanding the party apparatus and remaining ideologically committed, pushed conservatives to look to Ronald Reagan as the standard bearer for their ideas by the late 1970s.