Comparing the GOP Divides, 1964 and 2016

Stuart Rothenberg May 24, 2016 · 9:00 AM EDT

With the GOP national convention still almost two months away and Donald Trump already wooing skeptical Republicans, it’s too early to know how divided the Republican Party will be in November. But minimizing that divide is critical to Trump’s prospects.

The party’s last serious fracture occurred in 1964, when a polarizing nominee resulted in a Democratic presidential landslide and disappointing congressional elections.

No, Trump is not Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, and the country and its politics look very different today than they did 52 years ago. Today’s parties are much more ideological and the distance between them is much greater, presumably making defections less likely. And Trump’s problem is not that he is perceived as too ideological.

But, as in the 1960s, a divided party is a defeated party, so the degree to which Republicans close ranks behind their nominee is no less important now than it was five decades ago.

The race for the 1964 Republican nomination and the party’s July convention were incredibly contentious. The GOP’s liberal wing, whose leaders included New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, believed Goldwater was an extremist who did not support civil rights and would take the nation to the brink of nuclear war. 

But after the convention, many GOP current and former elected officials, including some of Goldwater’s sharpest critics, endorsed the Republican nominee.

At a press conference following a mid-August “unity” event of Republican governors and gubernatorial nominees held in Hershey, Pa., former president Dwight Eisenhower said he would “fully support the Republican national ticket in the coming campaign…. I am right on [Goldwater’s] team as much as he wants me,” though Ike did note that his age (almost 74) limited his activity. (Congressional Quarterly, week ending Aug. 14, 1964, p. 1750) Former vice-president Richard Nixon also attended the event and later in the campaign gave speeches supporting Goldwater.

Michigan Gov. George W. Romney, another Goldwater critic, eventually promised that his state party would use “every asset available” to elect the Arizonan, (CQ, p. 1750), and even Rockefeller said he would support the nominee. But the New York governor’s office had previously indicated that Rockefeller did not plan to campaign outside of New York State and would spend much of his time working to re-elect Sen. Kenneth Keating and for down ballot Republican candidates. (CQ, p. 1754).

Liberal Maryland Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias said he was for Goldwater (CQ, p. 1754), as did Pennsylvania Sen. Hugh Scott, Maryland Sen. J. Glenn Beall and New York Rep. Ogden Reid. Reid, whose family owned the New York Herald Tribune, would switch to the Democratic Party in March of 1972, saying that he could not support Richard Nixon’s re-election.

Of course, there were some noteworthy defections, including New York Reps. John V. Lindsay (who later switched parties) and Seymour Halpern, both of whom said they could not support their party’s nominee.

Former Pepsi-Cola president Walter S. Mack, who had been a significant fundraiser for previous Republican campaigns, chaired a group called Republicans and Independents for Johnson. In response, new Republican National Committee chairman Dean Burch, a Goldwater ally, called Mack “a disgusting human being” for supporting Johnson. (CQ, p. 2580).

Another group, the Committee for Forward Looking Republicans, was established in late September.

Led by Cincinnati attorney Charles P. Taft, son of former president William Howard Taft and brother of the late senator Robert A. Taft, the group, “which was formed by Republicans who could not in all conscience support the Goldwater-Miller ticket,” would raise funds for a number of moderate and liberal GOP candidates. (CQ, p. 2329)

Sens. Jacob Javits (N.Y.) and Clifford Case (N.J.) announced their support for the group, as did a number of Eisenhower aides and cabinet officials, business people and 1960 GOP vice-presidential nominee Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

Clearly, this was a seriously divided GOP, with some elected officials formally endorsing Goldwater but often doing little more to show their support. Others refused to go even that far.

At this point in the 2016 cycle, it is unclear whether the Republican division will be as great as it was in 1964 – or even worse.

The last two Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, say they won’t support Trump, as does the last GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, who has been unfailingly critical of the nominee.

House Speaker Paul Ryan probably will endorse Trump eventually, but his initial decision not to embrace his party’s nominee was extraordinary – and telling. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse has said he will never support Trump.

In addition, a number of prominent activists, thinkers and writers in the party’s conservative wing – Erik Erickson, Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin, for example – have rejected Trump. Some are looking for a third party candidate who could help bring anti-Trump Republicans to the polls in November to support down ballot GOP nominees.

But the extent of Trump’s problems at the grassroots level is unclear. While recent polling shows Republican voters rallying around Trump because of their dislike for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, plenty of average Republican voters will bypass the presidential race, vote for a third party nominee or, even worse for the GOP, simply stay home in November.

The Gallup Poll estimates that 20 percent of Republicans voted for Democratic Pres. Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (based on the firm’s last pre-election survey). Obviously, defections even half that would be fatal for Trump, since only 6 percent of 2012 Republican voters voted for Obama, according to the national exit poll.

Trump will have plenty of opportunities to reach out to Republicans who distrust him or have been nauseated by his style and comments. If he can’t bring some of those voters back into the fold, he probably cannot win in November, no matter how many new working-class white voters he can bring to the GOP column.