Conservative Republican Barry Goldwater lost the presidential election in 1964

Henry Srebrnik
Published on August 17, 2014

The march of conservative Republicans to the White House, which culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, began 50 years ago this summer.

Barry Goldwater, the U.S. senator from Arizona, was nominated by the Republican Party as its presidential candidate in July 1964. He faced Democrat Lyndon Johnson, who had become president after John Kennedy’s assassination a year earlier.

Goldwater rose to prominence in conservative circles with the 1960 publication of his book, “The Conscience of a Conservative.” It explored the perils of power, states’ rights, civil rights, taxes and spending, and the welfare state.

But this was the era of liberal activism, and Johnson’s social reforms, collectively known as the “Great Society,” were designed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. New major spending programs that addressed education, medical care, urban problems, and transportation were launched during this period.

A number of eastern-establishment moderate Republicans tried to stop Goldwater in 1964, but to no avail. At the Republican nominating convention in San Francisco, Goldwater won on the first ballot, with 883 votes to just 214 for Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, 114 for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and 41 for Michigan Governor George Romney.

I recall watching it on television in Washington D.C., which I was visiting as a teenager.

Already targeted by Johnson as a dangerous right-wing radical, Goldwater responded with this famous retort at the convention: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

Rockefeller, Romney, and former president Dwight Eisenhower refused to endorse Goldwater in the general election, and his earlier Senate vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 doomed him with moderate Republicans. But he did gain the backing of then Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan, who gave a well-received televised speech supporting Goldwater.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s campaign proved devastating, highlighting statements in which Goldwater had advocated the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam and had argued that Social Security be made voluntary. It also tried to link the Republican candidate to the Ku Klux Klan.

Most famous of Johnson’s attempts to scare the electorate into rejecting Goldwater was the so-called “Daisy Girl” television ad, which featured a little girl picking petals from a daisy in a field, counting the petals; it then segued into a launch countdown and a nuclear explosion.

Goldwater lost to Johnson in a landslide, winning only five southern states that had been increasingly alienated by Democratic civil rights policies, along with his home state of Arizona.

Johnson’s percentage of the popular vote, 61.1 per cent to Goldwater’s 38.5 per cent, gave him 486 Electoral College votes, against 52 for the Arizona senator. No post-1964 Democratic presidential candidate has been able to match or better Johnson’s performance in the Electoral College.

But Goldwater’s disastrous campaign planted to seeds for an eventual conservative takeover of the Republican Party. “A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away,” he had argued. Today, virtually all Republicans support “small government.”

Two years later, Ronald Reagan won election as governor of California. In 1976, he was narrowly defeated in his bid for the Republican nomination for president by Gerald Ford, who went on to lose the Jimmy Carter. However, Reagan succeeded four years later, and then bested Carter in the 1980 presidential election. The rest is history.

Indeed, by the time Goldwater died in 1998, the Republican Party had moved so far to the right that he had joked, two years earlier, that by comparison he was almost a liberal.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.