and the Transformation of American Politics (2017)
The magic number of delegates needed to secure the nomination for President at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 was 1312, and there was no way to get even half that total via the 14 primaries between March and July. Most of the delegates weren’t pledged to any candidate that won a primary, which was a clear advantage to LBJ, the consummate political infighter and deal-maker in the “Inside Game”. LBJ expected to dominate the primaries without actually campaigning, and there was nothing wrong with that plan unless the political landscape changed . . . and when it did, LBJ and his Circle of Trust would be the last to figure it out.
Lowenstein and those behind the “Dump Johnson” movement saw something in the primaries that no one else did, in that while it was true the whole primary process was geared to favor the incumbent and to create numerous barriers for entry for challengers, there were opportunities in which to take advantage. The strategy was to celebrate a second-place showing as a victory, and then to work the New Hampshire political machinery to get as many delegates pledged as possible. Also, the media needed to buy in to the notion that a second-place finish was indeed a “win”, which would provide momentum for the next primary.
On 30 January 1968, 35 battalions of the Viet Cong attacked six separate points in Saigon, including the US Embassy. They found US troops and the ARVN (The Army for the Republic of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese Army) unprepared, since the border skirmishes had misdirected and fooled General Westmoreland. . . the Tet Offensive had started. American television and newspapers were full of images and news of Tet, which hit 36 provincial capitals in addition to Saigon, which hadn’t het been attacked in the war. The image on television and newspapers that shocked the US public the most was that of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a suspected VC leader. The police chief had good reason to do so in that the man that he shot had ordered and taken part in the executions of 34 innocent people. But that backstory was not on the menu for the US media, and the photo ran in all the world’s newspapers.
The Tet Offensive sent thousands of college kids to NH to work on behalf of McCarthy, and in an instant over 5000 students were working around the clock, and the campaign was finally brought to life. On college campuses nationwide, Tet was the lightning bolt that accelerated hatred/opposition to the war. LBJ stated that 10,000 additional US troops would be sent to Vietnam, and he also announced that he had extended the tours of those already stationed in SE Asia and was calling up reserves . . . it was as if the Johnson Administration was working as recruiting agents for the McCarthy campaign.
LBJ’s forces in NH had presumed an easy victory, and were in no way expecting an effective challenge. McCarthy looked and felt like a winner before the primary, hearing the roar against tyranny. The NH primary occurred on 12 March 1968, and LBJ garnered 49% and McCarthy received 42%, but the candidate that finished second won that night. McCarthy secured 20 pledged delegates to LBJ’s 4, once the dust had settled, due to the workings of McCarthy’s two main strategists who were from New Hampshire. McCarthy was officially ahead of LBJ in the delegate count right out of the gate, and the politics within the Democratic Party would change significantly as a result. During every primary season since 1968, the Democrats have been looking for another Eugene McCarthy, but one that could win the nomination and the Presidency . . .