History remembers the presidential primary elections in the spring of 1968 as the intra-party fighting between Democrats Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. But on the GOP side, Richard Nixon faced competition as well.
Ronald Reagan was running his first presidential campaign in a stealth mode. Every free weekend since taking office in January 1967, he had left Sacramento to campaign in specific cities, set up his campaign staffs, and meet with his financial backers. Reagan's three main targets were Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Oregon. Each had a unique "Opt-Out" primary, in which candidates who were thought to be national candidates for the presidency had their names placed on those ballots. A candidate could opt-out by signing an affidavit that she/he was not a candidate for the presidency. Reagan had the perfect excuse as to why he could not withdraw his name: he already was the favorite son candidate from California!
Earlier in the year, Reagan had achieved his initial goal of garnering support at the 10 percent level in Wisconsin. Now came his biggest test as a first time national candidate outside of California: Nebraska.
In 1967 in Omaha, Reagan had been the star attraction at the Young Republican National Federation convention. Against Nixon and Rockefeller, Reagan was the clear favorite of the convention. Indeed Nixon did not even show up. Later that year in Grand Island, Reagan set up his initial campaign organization. By early 1968, there were three distinct Reagan for President campaign offices in Nebraska — two in Omaha and one in Lincoln.
With help from Citizens for Reagan National Information Center in Topeka, mailings were sent out and donations poured in. Richard Nixon, who earlier had announced he did not need to visit Nebraska again, suddenly did an about face as he faced the Reagan threat. On April 9, Nixon announced he was returning to Nebraska and would visit every congressional district.
Then the Reagan forces pulled out their big guns, using the new media of television. The Reagan campaign had created the campaign film, "Ronald Reagan, Citizen Governor." Reagan's campaign staff mainly planned to bypass the traditional media of newspaper or radio advertisements and aimed their sites at TV.
The film traced how Democrat Pat Brown in 1962 had defeated Richard Nixon for the governorship of California. In defeat now for the second time in two years — having lost the presidency to John Kennedy in 1960 — Nixon is seen saying that the GOP "needs a new leader." But the film shows how four years later, Reagan had defeated Brown by almost one million votes. Reagan's career is summarized, along with the clear inference that Reagan should defeat Nixon now in 1968. Reagan closes by exhorting Republicans to raise a banner to attract fellow Republicans as well as Independents and disaffected Democrats. But he cautions not to color the banner with "the pale pastels of political expediency." Republicans who remember that Reagan used that phrase at his 1975 CPAC speech should learn that Reagan first used that phrase fully seven years earlier in his 1968 campaign film.
Reagan's team saturated the Nebraska airwaves with the campaign film just before primary. Nixon was forced to return a second time to shore up his campaign against the Reagan threat. On May 10 at one of the Reagan headquarters in Omaha, the chairman told the press that the response to the campaign film was "overwhelming." He said that teams of students wanting to work for Reagan in Nebraska just had arrived from Illinois, California, and Kansas. The Omaha World Record listed Reagan's media triumphs on television, as well as his radio ads and mailings, as extending an "open hand" for Democrats to vote for Reagan. Then the seemingly desperate Nixon campaign sent out their own letter to Democrats asking them to write in Nixon's name.
On May 14, 1968, as expected, Nixon won the GOP primary. But Ronald Reagan astounded analysts by doubling his prior vote tally in Wisconsin. Initial projections showed Reagan winning 22 percent of the vote, although the final results would be 21.3 percent. Time reported that Nixon was forced to admit that Reagan did "very well." Historian Patrick Buchanan admitted that Reagan, and not Rockefeller, remained Nixon's biggest problem. The New York Times reported that Reagan made his "best showing." so far in 1968. The Chicago Sun-Times felt Reagan's vote total was "impressive." San Francisco's KPIX reporter said, "Reagan pulled a strong vote."
Those press comments which chastised Reagan because he had not won had missed the point. Reagan never had expected to win the Nebraska primary. His goal was to achieve incremental vote increases from Wisconsin to Nebraska to Oregon. With Reagan to receive 100 percent of California's huge number of delegates because he was favorite son, he planned to sail into the GOP convention with enough delegates to stop a first ballot Nixon victory and to be seen as the major alternative to Nixon.
For Ronald Reagan in Nebraska in May 1968, he proved he was a national candidate. His campaign then was off to Oregon, while he was in the midst of delivering five scathing white paper speeches attacking the foreign and defense failures of Robert Kennedy, who likely would be the Democratic nominee.
Of course history records that Reagan would fail in this first attempt to become the GOP nominee, as he would again on his second attempt in 1976. But Ronald Reagan's eventual triumph in 1980 in no small measure would come about because of what he had achieved in the 1968 Nebraska Republican primary exactly fifty years ago today.
Gene Kopelson is the author of "Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman" (Figueroa Press, 2016) and has published about Reagan’s 1966 successful gubernatorial campaign with Americans of Mexican descent. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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