WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2016 - Late October polling patterns showing Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump mired at or below 40 percent invite comparisons with the 1964 election that Barry Goldwater lost in a landslide. In the final month of that campaign, Goldwater never exceeded 34 percent in Harris and Gallup polls but ended up with 38 percent to Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s 61 percent.

Several elements of this year’s campaign evoke memories of 1964 – significant defections of Republican office-holders and business executives from the party’s nominee and large numbers of normally GOP-supporting newspapers that endorsed the Democratic candidate.

But the 2016 campaign also has notable differences from 52 years ago. Then, the Democrat was an incumbent president; the Internet and social media were only in science fiction; there was no Fox News Channel, Rush Limbaugh or Drudge Report to root for a conservative challenger. The issues and the makeup of the electorate also were starkly different.

From the perspective of agricultural and rural politics, perhaps the sharpest contrast is how the candidates fared in rural areas. Like today, political analysts in 1964 found the GOP nominee’s chances slim outside the South, but unlike today, even narrowing in farm areas. “Goldwater’s efforts to tuck away the electoral votes of the conservative traditionally Republican states of the Great Plains are stumbling,” Donald Janson wrote in The New York Times Oct. 22, 1964.

The Democratic campaign’s all-out effort was captured by Theodore H. White, who wrote in his classic, “The Making of the President 1964,” that the Rural Americans for Johnson-Humphrey committee was “exceptionally able.” Well-funded and coordinated and staffed in Washington by political appointees who took leave from their USDA jobs, the campaign flooded state-level activists and operatives with literature, bumper stickers, buttons and advertising copy that painted Goldwater as a threat to farm price supports and other rural programs.

“In every county, working through the Farmers Union and the rural electrification cooperatives,” White wrote, the Johnson-Humphrey campaign “could mobilize thousands” to defend farm programs and the rural electric program. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), whose members were active in the campaign effort, said that “in no less than 23 states the rural vote went more heavily for Johnson than in the state as a whole,” White wrote. Farmers voted 3-1 for Johnson in Kentucky, North Dakota, Oregon, Texas and Washington.

President Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, his vice presidential running mate, both paid attention to the farm vote. Leaders of Rural America for Johnson-Humphrey were given an audience with LBJ in the White House Rose Garden Sept. 14, 1964. “Our agricultural policies must never be made blindly,” he said. “They must never be predicated upon a bias or prejudice against the farmer.”

Election of Goldwater would be a “death sentence to agriculture,” Humphrey said at the National Plowing Contest in North Dakota that same month, citing Goldwater’s book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” that called for “prompt and final termination of the farm subsidy program.” He preceded that appearance with speeches in four towns in his native South Dakota, The New York Times reported, likely the most attention the state has had from a presidential campaign since.

The role of NRECA and its member cooperatives in the rural effort to re-elect LBJ created its own fallout. “The leader of the nation’s biggest farm organization suggested yesterday that the Hatch Act [which prohibits federal employee political activity] should be amended to apply to employees of rural electric cooperatives,” Chicago Tribune farm editor Richard Orr wrote in late November. “The suggestion came from Charles B. Shuman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF),” in response to a request for comment, Orr said. “Following the election Norman Clapp, REA administrator, credited co-op leaders across the nation with spearheading a campaign which he said achieved a record-shattering rural Democratic vote.”

Orr quoted Jerry L. Anderson, then executive assistant to NRECA’s general manager and a key leader of the rural campaign, who said Goldwater’s opposition to rural electrification and other rural programs cost the Republican nominee “millions of votes.” Orr said Shuman disagreed with the impact of NRECA but said that it “and many electric co-ops put on quite a campaign of opposition to Senator Goldwater and many members of Congress.”

Another major departure from 1964: Trump is no Goldwater, as political newsletter editor Stuart Rothenberg wrote in May. The Gallup Poll estimated that LBJ won 20 percent of Republicans’ votes in those days, Rothenberg wrote. “Obviously, defections even half that would be fatal for Trump, since only 6 percent of 2012 Republicans voted for Obama, according to the exit poll.”


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