Nixon Is Elected President Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Richard M. Nixon was elected president, repudiating Lyndon B. Johnson’s policies in Vietnam and marking the start of one of the most controversial presidential administrations in U.S. history.

Summary of Event

The tone of the office of the presidency was established from its beginning. The primary qualities embodied in the office included all the synonyms of the word “integrity,” plus dignity, humanitarianism, leadership in war and peace, and an authoritative approach to domestic problems. This list of attributes is the mark left by the first man to hold the office, George Washington. Outstanding leaders succeeded Washington—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln—to enhance and solidify the image of the office. Theodore Roosevelt rescued the presidency from the doldrums, and through it helped solidify the position of the United States as a world power. Woodrow Wilson elevated the leadership aspects of the office still further; Franklin D. Roosevelt took charge at a time of national dismay and despair and through the force of his leadership brought the country through its most trying times since the Civil War. Presidency, U.S.;Richard M. Nixon[Nixon] Presidential elections, U.S.;1968 [kw]Nixon Is Elected President (Nov. 5, 1968) [kw]President, Nixon Is Elected (Nov. 5, 1968) Presidency, U.S.;Richard M. Nixon[Nixon] Presidential elections, U.S.;1968 [g]North America;Nov. 5, 1968: Nixon Is Elected President[10020] [g]United States;Nov. 5, 1968: Nixon Is Elected President[10020] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 5, 1968: Nixon Is Elected President[10020] Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;1968 presidential elections Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;1968 presidential elections Agnew, Spiro T. Humphrey, Hubert H. [p]Humphrey, Hubert H.;1968 presidential elections McCarthy, Eugene Rockefeller, Nelson A. Wallace, George C.

The 1960’s brought another crisis to the nation, which tested the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. As a result of the social unrest sparked by the war in Vietnam, the nation’s racial problems, and the ambitious government programs of Johnson’s Great Society, the president’s political base had collapsed by the beginning of 1968, and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam forced Johnson to withdraw as a candidate for reelection in March, 1968. Elected only four years before by the highest percentage of the popular vote in history, Johnson had become the focus for dissatisfaction and disappointment across the spectrum of U.S. politics.

The political vacuum created by Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection soon was filled by a number of eager aspirants. Chief among them were Hubert H. Humphrey, the incumbent vice president; Robert F. Kennedy Kennedy, Robert F. [p]Kennedy, Robert F.;1968 presidential elections , the heir to “Camelot” and his slain brother, John F. Kennedy; and Eugene McCarthy, a Minnesota senator and bitter enemy of the administration’s Vietnam War policy, often credited with being the man who “dethroned” President Johnson. The Republican possibilities to run against them were George W. Romney Romney, George W. , who fell early in the campaign, partly because of an unfortunate public reply to a question on Vietnam; Richard M. Nixon, the former vice president who had lost to Kennedy in 1960; and Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York and a perennial candidate, who dropped out of the race for the nomination, then reentered when it was too late. Offstage stood Alabama governor George C. Wallace, a right-winger who was gathering strength from opponents of racial integration, widespread crime and violence, and big government. Issues were abundant in 1968, but the prime ones—after the violent conflict over the Vietnam War—were civil rights and the attendant integration, poverty, and welfare pressures; riots and revolutions in cities and on campuses; extreme political and ideological polarization; a credibility gap at the highest levels; a not-inconsequential generation gap; and crime in the streets.

The Republican convention was held at Miami Beach in early August. It seemed a foregone conclusion that the nomination belonged to Nixon, yet there were diehards. Rockefeller, who earlier had hoped to package Romney as the “Republican with a future,” had himself been inclined to run but had withdrawn his name on March 21, 1968. Five weeks later, he reconsidered and became a serious candidate. Waging a vigorous campaign that was aimed at the young, African Americans, and those Republicans who yearned for new leadership, Rockefeller made a gallant effort, but to no avail. A more serious challenge to Nixon came from the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, but Nixon, with the help of his Southern allies, retained control of the nomination. At Miami Beach, the first ballot gave Nixon 692 votes and Rockefeller 277; no one else was close. Nixon selected as his running mate Spiro T. Agnew, the governor of Maryland—a surprising choice to many—and the ticket was set.

The strife and controversy attendant upon the Democratic convention at Chicago late in August did little to reassure the average U.S. voter that all was well or soon would be. Robert Kennedy had fallen to an assassin’s bullet in June, and McCarthy had no real professional base. It was left for Humphrey to inherit the nomination after an abortive effort of Southern delegates to offer Johnson (who did not even attend the convention) as a candidate to succeed himself, and a proposed effort to draft Ted Kennedy Kennedy, Ted , which failed to materialize. Rioting in the streets by antiwar demonstrators and Chicago police added to the impression of disarray among the Democrats.

There was little similarity between the ways in which the two presidential campaigns were run. Nixon’s was extremely well financed, and there were virtually no limits on his expenditures. On the other hand, the Democrats were poorly financed, which severely handicapped Humphrey in his efforts. It has been suggested by some political pundits that given two more weeks and another few million dollars, Humphrey might well have overtaken Nixon. In the late polls, the Democratic candidate was gaining on Nixon and closing the gap fast. A late peace initiative in Vietnam by Lyndon Johnson contributed to the Humphrey surge in late October and early November. Nixon used back-channel diplomacy with South Vietnam to dilute the effect of Johnson’s peace offensive.

During the fall, Nixon campaigned relatively little, believing firmly that with the nomination he had won the election. Reporters often complained of Nixon’s aloofness, claiming that he acted as though he were already president. Such strategy was no doubt based on Nixon’s belief that in the minds of most voters, his opponent was “Johnson’s man” and thus doomed regardless of what he might do. Furthermore, Nixon had made special efforts to court the South, and he counted on that fact and on the popularity of Wallace to cut deeply into an important block of Humphrey’s natural territory.

The election was closer than many experts expected. When the votes were counted, Nixon had 31,770,237 popular votes to 31,270,552 for Humphrey and 9,906,141 for Wallace. In the all-important electoral votes, however, Nixon won handily, 302 to 191 for Humphrey and 45 for Wallace. Although the issues were many, none seemed as clear-cut as “Johnson’s War.” Humphrey was stuck with it; Nixon promised to end it. Despite the numerous domestic problems, especially the race question, the war situation was the big issue, and Nixon represented a change in the status quo. Many presidential elections hinge on minor issues or even personalities, but the election of 1968 revolved around a deep schism in the body politic. The continued flow of U.S. blood in distant lands, where citizens had no emotional ties and no national commitment, was intolerable. A change of command in Washington, D.C., seemed the only hope—and the message was delivered at the polls on November 5, 1968.


The Nixon administration was to end in disgrace in the Watergate scandal Watergate scandal (1973) of 1973, but not before President Nixon won a landslide reelection victory over the Democrats in 1972, when Democrat George McGovern won only seventeen electoral votes. There was, however, a direct causal link between those two events, as the type of political tactics Nixon used to ensure that the easily defeatable McGovern would be his opponent were ultimately the cause of his forced resignation. Although Nixon did achieve the end of direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, the United States failed to secure the “peace with honor” that Nixon had promised in the 1968 campaign. The most enduring result of the election was to open a prolonged period of Republican dominance in national politics, based on the electoral coalition that Nixon had forged in 1968 and strengthened in 1972. Presidency, U.S.;Richard M. Nixon[Nixon] Presidential elections, U.S.;1968

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ambrose, Stephen. Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. A clear, readable treatment of the campaign, from the point of view of the winner.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, Dan T. The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Examines the effect that Wallace’s candidacy had on the Nixon campaign and the outcome of the election.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chester, Lewis, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page. An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968. New York: Viking Press, 1969. The best of the contemporaneous accounts of the election. Fascinating for its insights into U.S. politics from a British perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farber, David. Chicago ’68. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. A thorough and thoughtful examination of the controversial Democratic National Convention in 1968 and the violence that occurred in the streets outside the convention hall.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Lewis L. 1968: The Election That Changed America. Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1993. Argues that the race issue had a greater impact in the minds of the voters in 1968 than did the war in Vietnam.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaiser, Charles. 1968 in America. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988. Strong on the cultural and social setting of the turbulent events of 1968.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morrow, Lance. The Best Year of Their Lives: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in 1948—Learning the Secrets of Power. New York: Basic Books, 2005. Uses 1948 as a focus year to discuss the different careers, philosophies, and politics of the three presidents that defined the 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strober, Deborah Hart, and Gerald S. Strober. The Nixon Presidency: An Oral History of the Era. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2003. A history of the Nixon administration, culled from interviews with the friends and associates of the president. Index.

Eisenhower Is Elected President

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President Kennedy Is Assassinated

Johnson Is Elected President

Robert F. Kennedy Is Assassinated

Nixon Doctrine Is Unveiled

Environmental Protection Agency Is Created

Nixon Signs the Occupational Safety and Health Act

Categories: History