Eugene McCarthy will always be remembered as the man who “toppled LBJ” in 1968. His campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination that year seemed futile. Whatever his problems, Lyndon Johnson had one advantage: he was the incumbent who enjoyed the benefits of office.
But McCarthy’s upstart campaign managed to lose and to win the New Hampshire primary. By getting 42 percent of the vote (and holding LBJ under 50 percent), McCarthy paved the way for Johnson’s withdrawal from the race. Incumbents are still expected to win their re‐election bids. Incumbents still have an advantage in running for re‐election. What is missing now are challengers coming out of nowhere to challenge the status quo.
Eugene McCarthy’s campaign depended on two factors, shifting public opinion and money. Public support for the Vietnam War remained strong for a longer time than we now remember. Only in the fall of 1968 were a majority of Americans willing to say that the Vietnam effort had been a mistake.
McCarthy sensed that his campaign could represent an emerging public sentiment against the war. But to enter the race for the presidency, he needed more than a message, more even than the volunteers that flocked to him that spring.
McCarthy needed money to finance his campaign. He got it. McCarthy received several six‐figure donations from affluent individuals deeply opposed to the war in Vietnam. Herbert Alexander, a leading campaign finance expert, estimates that about one‐third of McCarthy’s total fundraising in 1968 came from just 50 large donors. David Hoeh, the organizer of McCarthy’s New Hampshire campaign, recalled later that a single “financial angel” saved their media effort at a crucial point.
McCarthy spent the money effectively in spreading his anti‐war message. The McCarthy campaign devoted $110,000 to radio and television in New Hampshire and over $150,000 on all communications media in that primary. That does not seem like much today. In those days such sums were large enough to get McCarthy into the presidential game, large enough to all but defeat a sitting president, and begin the winding down of the Vietnam War.
McCarthy’s campaign made a difference in that year of living dangerously, 1968. It thus attracted attention, not all of it welcome. Many love competition more in theory than in practice. McCarthy had shown the electoral potential of television backed by political contributions in service to a political message. McCarthy had, in short, threatened the political status quo.
Congress moved quickly to deal with the threat. Early 1969, legislation limiting campaign spending on television and other broadcasting outlets appeared in Congress and was passed in 1970 (President Nixon vetoed it) and 1971.
The purpose of the law was clear. If the campaign finance law of 1971 had been in effect in 1968, McCarthy would have been required to spend 80 percent less on the media in the New Hampshire primary. Congress had, as one member put it, “tamed the television monster.” More concretely, Congress had tried to make sure no more Eugene McCarthys rose up to challenge the status quo.
After Watergate, Congress replaced the limits on broadcast spending with more general spending limits, which the Supreme Court voided in the case of Buckley v. Valeo (McCarthy was a plaintiff against the limits). Contribution limits, a weaker way to same end of suppressing competition, received judicial blessing.
In our time the men who supported McCarthy’s 1968 effort would be liable for the crime of contributing too much money to a political campaign. Not surprisingly we have many fewer upstart campaigns like McCarthy’s and 98 percent of incumbents win their bids to be re‐elected to Congress.
McCarthy himself believed that campaign finance restrictions complicated the lives of candidates and their supporters, increased the influence of special interests, and ultimately made lawbreakers out of people seeking to exercise their right to political association. Most of such laws, he said, violated the Constitution while upholding the privileged status of the major parties. His opposition to campaign finance law was, he explained near the end of his life, a “free speech kind of thing.”
Indeed it was. Contrarian and principled. A Gene McCarthy kind of thing.