Back in 1968 I remember standing in line and cheering and stomping my feet at large rallies for Eugene McCarthy. All things considered, 1968 was a horrible year but the McCarthy campaign was inspiring and energized a lot of young voters and made them work for a candidate. McCarthy was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War and his campaign was dismissed as “The Children’s Crusade” by some political pundits. After McCarthy gained 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary it was clear that LBJ was weakened. Robert F. Kennedy, who was expecting McCarthy to be soundly beaten in New Hampshire, entered the presidential race on March 16th and immediately drew some support away from McCarthy. It was hard to compete with a Kennedy in the 1960s. LBJ announced that he would not run for reelection by the end of March. Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice President entered the race shortly afterward. McCarthy continued his campaign and had strong support among college students and younger voters and won six primaries. RFK was more popular in general and especially with minorities — he was pulling in votes and winning big primaries. Meanwhile, Humphrey worked in non-primary states and gained convention delegates without ever winning a primary.
The California primary in June was hard fought. McCarthy’s strength was in college towns and campuses and he focused his attention there. Kennedy visited ghettos and Latino neighborhoods where he was strongest. Robert F. Kennedy ended up winning by only four percentage points — but was assassinated just minutes after giving a victory speech in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. At that point the campaign was in chaos. Hubert Humphry already had a lead in delegates by working through state Democratic machines and power blocs and he gained the Democratic nomination at the convention. McCarthy was a distant second.
In the end, at the Chicago convention, the anti-war demonstrations and the “police riot” sucked the air out of whatever little idealism was left among the younger supporters. The 26th amendment lowering the voting age to 18 wasn’t passed until 1971 so many of us, me included, could not even vote in 1968. Richard Nixon won the election and became President. It is still a little painful just remembering that year.
In later years there were few other candidates that had a strong appeal and level of support from younger voters…who could now vote at age 18. In 1972 McCarthy campaigned again but was up against other popular competitors including Jerry Brown, Edmund Muskie and Shirley Chisholm. George McGovern won the nomination and lost miserably to Richard Nixon — this was the Watergate election. In 1976 it was Jimmy Carter who won…with the help of younger voters…against Gerald Ford. In 1980 Ronald Reagan won against Carter but there was another candidate, John Anderson, who gained some youthful popularity and was gaining votes in Republican primaries as a moderate alternative to Reagan. Anderson received 5.7 million votes in the November election as a third-party candidate.
After Carter, and the Reagan years that followed, there hasn’t been all that much for younger voters to get excited about as a group. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama attracted a wider level of support and no one on the Republican side seemed to have much of a youth appeal.
Bernie Sanders now has the spotlight among younger voters. I like him and his ideas… but…I’ve been there before. Sanders supporters are running into a brick wall and threatening to make a scene at the convention. Hillary Clinton is equally popular, has more delegates and has support among the DNC power groups. Our system is un-Constitutional — meaning thee is little guidance or direction coming from the US Constitution or addressing the parties or the nomination process. Good or bad, the parties make their own rules. As it is, Presidential politics is not child’s play….although this year, especially on the GOP side, it seems like a bad day in the schoolyard.