However by that point, May 1968, there was no love lost between the two anti-war candidates on the Democratic side. Kennedy didn’t think McCarthy would make a good president and he made it clear that his preferred understudy as liberal standard-bearer was South Dakota’s George McGovern. McCarthy for his part had little good to say about his rival even in the 37 years that separated RFK’s assassination and his own death in December 2005.
The two men, though, are forever linked by that 1968 campaign, which in time caused a revolution in the way Americans chose their chief executive. In the New Hampshire primary on March 12, McCarthy took 42 percent of the vote, coming second to President Lyndon Johnson, who got 49 percent in a write-in campaign.
Four days later, on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, Kennedy announced his candidacy. Then in a live television broadcast on March 31, Johnson told the nation that he would not be seeking reelection.
Once before, in 1952, the New Hampshire primary had helped end a presidential career. Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver’s victory there and in subsequent primaries suggested to Harry S. Truman that his White House days were over.
But it’s 1968 that lives in the popular memory, not least because college students – by cutting their hair, shaving their beards and dressing respectability — got “Clean for Gene” to canvass door to door for the Minnesota senator.
New Hampshire probably didn’t change all that much. RFK had already decided to run and LBJ had been vulnerable, but it provided an important narrative hook. Everything was before or after March 12.
It provided a lesson, too, in how perception is everything in politics. McCarthy lost but won a moral victory (and took most of the state’s convention delegates). Yet, in late 1967 many political professionals thought that LBJ could be beaten in primaries and some were convinced he’d withdraw rather than fight. By New Year, though, the only declared candidate (whom some thought was a stalking horse for Bobby Kennedy) was far behind in the polls.
Visiting French socialist politician, and later president, Francois Mitterand suggested to Kennedy that if the ineffective McCarthy was a stalking horse for anyone it was for LBJ. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam at the end of January changed everything.
With RFK dead, the chaotic Democratic Convention in August nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey who’d stayed clear of the primaries. (He was narrowly defeated by Richard Nixon in November.)
But the tumultuous events of 1968 led directly to a party commission that recommended a change of rules, shifting the selection process towards the state primaries and away from the party bosses. The GOP quickly followed suit.
Previously, candidates used primaries to demonstrate to party bosses their viability as candidates — which these days we call “electability.” For instance, JFK contested West Virginia in 1960 to show that a Catholic could win in an overwhelming Protestant state. Now, from the early 1970s on, the primaries and the caucuses would be the game.
As a consequence, New Hampshire, which by its own state law insists on being first, grew hugely in importance. It also continued to provide much drama. In 1972, Senator Ed Muskie appeared to break down when defending his wife’s reputation. (He said later the “tears” that undermined his candidacy were in fact snowflakes.) In 1984, Gary Hart’s sensational victory opened up the race. And Bill Clinton’s “war room” dubbed him “The Comeback Kid” after he came second in 1992.
Some ask why New Hampshire should have such disproportionate influence. To which New Hampshire says: “Why not?” Too white and too rural, reply its opponents. Yet at the time of writing, Barack Obama looks strong in the Granite State and if elected president he’ll be the first African-American and first son of an immigrant since Andrew Jackson to hold the job.
People dislike the recent “frontloading” of primaries. But most agree that this is still better than the nominees emerging from the “smoke-filled rooms” of yore.
Nowadays, any U.S. citizen interested in politics has to pay attention before anyone has even voted in Iowa or New Hampshire. In their new book “Conventional Wisdom and American Elections,” Jody C. Baumgartner and Peter L. Francia write that “polls taken immediately prior to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are a good indicator of who will be the eventual nominee…”
They also point out that while it’s possible to finish in third place in Iowa and survive — George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton both did — there’s no such room for maneuver in the Granite State. “From 1972 to 2004, the winner of 14 contested nominations won in New Hampshire nine times, and placed second five times.”
And soon it will be all over. It seems certain that by the time the 40th anniversary of Eugene McCarthy’s New Hampshire “upset” comes around on March 12, we’ll already know who’ll be on the ballot in this year’s General Election.