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New Nixon and Youth Politics, 1968

A poster with a bright red background, framed with blue and white stars and red and white stripes. The top text reads "Nixon's the One!" while the text at the bottom reads simply "Nixon". The smiling face of Richard Nixon is surrounded by the faces of other politicians and celebrities, some of whom carry signs with political slogans.
This 1968 poster was one of the Young Voters for Nixon’s most popular successes as it attracted several major press stories, managed an appearance on a top rated television program and found a place in the Smithsonian Institute. Image via the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Running for president in 1968, Richard Nixon offered a flattering view of the nation’s youth, those Americans born during or after World War II. “They are more socially conscious, more politically aware, and much better educated than their parents were at age 18,” he gushed in an eighteen-minute speech on NBC radio. “Youth today is just not as young as it used to be.” Baby boomers’ rising influence on American politics and society made youth politics a necessity. “Never before have the boys in the backroom of American politics paid such obeisance at the altar of youth,” cried one reporter. Thus, the candidate pundits and historians labeled the “New Nixon”–one that embraced the politics of image and ran a public relations-savvy campaign–created the Young Voters for Nixon.[1]

To form this group, Nixon initially looked to the New Right’s mobilized cadre, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). YAF, established by the conservative movement leader William F. Buckley Jr., gathered leading young conservatives to counter “liberal educationism” on campuses. Virulently anti-communist and supportive of the free market and states’ rights, YAF included over twenty thousand members and proved its influence on the GOP’s conservative shift in 1964 when its leaders formed Youth for Goldwater. They organized to promote Senator Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy that opposed Civil Rights legislation and supported a more aggressiveCold War policy against communism. While Goldwater lost the election to the incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide, his young voters coalesced into a lasting conservative influence on GOP politics.[2]

After meeting with YAF leader Pat Buchanan in 1966, Nixon hired the young “thoroughgoing conservative” as a research assistant to bolster his credibility and network with young political activists on the right. Buchanan’s role inNixon’s campaign, however, proved the exception as many young ideologues preferredRonald Reagan’s ardent attack on the costly government programs that emerged from the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s Great Society. These conservatives in theNew Right especially advocated for Reagan’s “law and order” stance against campus unrest. After all, nearly three-quarters of Americans, including half of theAmericans who called the Vietnam War a mistake, saw protesters in a negative light.[3]

To be sure, Nixon channeled this backlash. In one interview, he espoused a no-nonsense approach on campuses, advising college and university leaders “to get the spine and the backbone” to expel any student or faculty member who“breaks the law and engages in violence.”[4] Still, to the YAF leaders’ chagrin, Nixon advocated a “secret plan” to end to the Vietnam War and a more diplomatic foreign policy, or Détente, to help relax Cold War tensions. These moderate positions created obstacles for Nixon’s courtship of young conservative activists. As one journalist observed, this wooing process proved “how gossamer are the threads binding Nixon with the Republican right.”[5]

Geoffrey Kabaservice’s recent critique of the literature on conservatism raises important questions about how historians frame the rise of the right. As he argues, “The success of Buckley and his ‘movement’ conservatives at transforming the GOP into an ideological vessel has led scholars to overlook the internal party warfare between moderates and conservatives that raged throughout the 1960s and 1970s.” Considering the role of youth politics in the GOP spotlights this tension.

This “internal party warfare between moderates and conservatives” also divided the GOP’s previously dependable and loyal youth auxiliary, the Young Republicans National Federation (YR). Founded in 1931, this organization received considerable funding directly from the Republican National Committee (RNC) and included a national leadership as well as local clubs that recruited young voters. Unfortunately for Nixon, the YR leadership’s divisions hampered the organization’s ability to mobilize young voters for him. In 1967, YR Chairman Jack McDonald represented the culmination of ultra-conservative’s ascendancy in the organization. Considered a Goldwaterite, McDonald belonged to a group known as the Syndicate. 

Under the tutelage of former Goldwater insider F. Clifton White, the Syndicate maintained a tight alliance with the right and influenced YR organizations on the state and local level to support Reagan’s bid for the presidency. While Nixon offered a candidacy for all Republicans, Reagan represented the New Right’s anti-establishment, conservative challenge to the GOP. After all, McDonald ran his victorious campaign for YR president against “the servant-boss relationship with the National Committee.” The remaining moderate Republican youth who comprised roughly half of the YR complained that “intra-party warfare” divided the clubs, as one Massachusetts delegate protested: “Their horse-nonsense drives workers out of the organization…and then conservatives can win by default.” While Nixon’s 1968 candidacy showed that the GOP moved back to the middle after Goldwater’s 1964 loss, grassroots conservative youth had not.[6]

Eyeing the growing role that young people played in the Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy campaigns, Nixon’s aides recommended he position himself to capture “non-partisan youth” who would lack a “hero-leader” once Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee. After all, over 60 percent of student voters identified themselves as independent. This tall task—making Nixon popular with the vast majority of youth in the middle– fell to Nixon’s experienced and trusted advisers such as Len Garment and Bill Gavin, who developed Young Voters for Nixon (YVN). Predictably, the YVN did not go over well with YR leaders, who “saw no need for a campaign group separate from theirs.” However, the turf fights and demands for a more influential role that defined YR and YAF convinced Nixon’s campaign in 1968 to take no risks, and the YVN assumed complete control of Nixon’s youth efforts.[7]

This image displays a crowd of smiling women wearing white hats that read "Vote" and sashes that read "Nixon." One woman holds a sign that reads "Nixon is Groovy" above the heads of the other women.
Young Voters for Nixon’s Nixonettes combined timeless and traditional election imagery with an appeal to young people at the 1968 Republican National Convention. Image via the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

The Republican National Convention in Miami would put Nixon’s youth campaign to the test. Nixonettes, female members of YVN clad in traditional campaign attire including a matching sash, skirt, white gloves and straw hat, crowded the convention floor and spiced the stodgy convention with youthful enthusiasm. Still, Nixon’s choice of Maryland’s law-and-order governor, Spiro Agnew, indicated Nixon’s distance from youth politics. As one congressman complained, “The selection ignored the youth movement.”[8]

The effort to appeal to the youth vote produced mixed results. On the one hand, Nixon’s allure had limits. Young observers found Nixon’s performance at the Republican National Convention disappointing. Calling the convention’s decision makers “party machine regulars” and “aristocratic bigots,” one nineteen-year-old from Chicago found the event “tawdry” and “boring.” On the other hand, once Hubert Humphrey emerged as Nixon’s opponent instead of McCarthy or Kennedy, outreach to young voters became less urgent. In fact, Nixon found it more beneficial to run against college students. [9]

As Nixon’s campaign headed into its final months before the general election, his television ads relayed his tough stand on the generation gap. In one ad, “The First Civil Right,” Nixon speaks over quickly shifting still shots of shouting youth and burning buildings. Young radicals became a convenient foil for Nixon to prove his conservative credibility with Sunbelt voters who would form his “silent majority.” This apprehension relied on the media-generated idea of wild youth in the streets. One editorial claimed: “Semantically the word student has come to mean violence, long hair, LSD, dirt, and sexual freedom to many adults whose major contact with youth has come through mass media.” Especially on southern campuses, young conservatives agreed, as one student from Lipscomb University in Tennessee complained, “The hippies, yippies and war protesters may make the news. But make no mistake about it! They are not representative of the overwhelming majority of young Americans who still believe that free men working together can achieve miracles.” While the anti-youth message may have helped Nixon’s appeal to youth on the right, it narrowed his popularity with moderates.[10]

In the end, Nixon invested little in his 1968 youth campaign. The YVN cost $80,000, a pittance considering Nixon raised over $20 million for his election, and gained only twelve thousand dues-paying members. In addition, the YVN suffered from poor leadership. “The job often went to the person who asked for it,” one review of the organization joked, “or Charley GOP’s nephew.” Only half of the youth vote showed up at the polls while 61 percent of the eligible Americans voted. Humphrey won 47 percent of voters under thirty while Nixon won 38 percent. Worse, Nixon could not nail down the non-college youth, as the third party candidate George Wallace won disproportionate support from those young voters. Some young Americans across the country even led anti-election demonstrations, as one protester in Washington, DC, carried a poster of Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace that read, “Are you kidding me?”[11]

Many scholars and pundits have located the New Nixon in the 1968 campaign. To be sure, Nixon’s campaign blunted the New Right’s reach for party influence. His modern public relations techniques also revealed a departure from Nixon’s previous campaign strategies. Still, this effort hardly met his campaign managers’ hopes for a youth shop that could provide “the division that flies in the face of traditionalism.” In addition, Nixon’s law-and-order campaign inflated the generation gap and complicated his youth campaign. Backlash politics against young protesters still yielded significant benefits for Nixon’s election. Thus, Nixon’s approach to the youth vote did little to distinguish himself from the old Nixon.[12]

After the election, the Nixon White House’s politics of youth continued the law-and-order approach that had shaped the campaign in 1968. Nixon soon after called for one thousand extra FBI agents for “keeping order” on American campuses. From 1968 to 1970,the number of students arrested increased from four thousand to seventy-two hundred, as one journalist explained, student protest had become “the meat on which mini-Caesars feed.”[13]

Campus conservatives loved this. One applauded Nixon’s position on demonstrators, complaining, “student extremists making all the noise care very little about progressing toward reasonable solutions…giving a false image of American students on the whole.” Nixon’s hard-line on campus protest, however, increasingly frightened activists. One campus leader claimed, “Friendly reporters pass on word of calls from the FBIto campus Security Offices, inquiring after me. It’s getting freaky.”[14]

After the Kent State massacre, when the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four student during a demonstration, Nixon’s advisors also challenged his tough approach to youth. As Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel admitted: “there is a concern in America that if ‘law and order’ stretches too far, it finally becomes hate and order.” The 1968 generation, as Nixon quickly learned, could not simply serve as cannon fodder. One aide reminded the president that young men and women, even many of campus protesters, also included the “the sons and daughters of the ‘silent majority.’” In addition, when the 26th amendment lowered the voting to 18 in 1971, the Nixon administration became determined to court young voters for 1972. On the issues, Nixon pursued a variety of moderate policies that concerned the majority of youth. He signed laws that protected the environment, ended the draft and opened trade with China. A campus opinion poll found that only one in twenty students looked at Nixon’s trip to China with disfavor.[15] 

As for Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972, he targeted non-college and independent young voters to create the semi-autonomous Young Voters for President that eventually included over 400,000 volunteers. Creating separate storefront YVP headquarters provided young people with the space to play different leadership roles and offered Nixon supporters access to the political organization through the“campaign within a campaign.” Nixon used this robust organization to polish his image, and he surprisingly split the youth vote with his anti-war, liberal opponent, Senator George McGovern.[16]

The recent 2018 midterm election reminds politicians and pundits that young voters can shift the political balance. While Democrats and Republicans learned this important lesson after 1968, youth politics continues to confound experts. Both parties are now pouring resources into winning over the next political generation, but the 1968 campaign and the following rise of youth politics show that either Democrats or Republicans can win this elusive voting bloc with a carefully targeted and well organized strategy. The youth vote’s growing influence after 1968 demonstrates that even the threat of a strong turnout eventually forced politicians to include young voters in campaigns and policy and that the current, massive generation of youth could gain similar influence.

Seth Blumenthal is a Senior Lecturer in Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences.  Blumenthal recently completed his first book, Children of the Silent Majority: Youth Politics and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1968-1980 with the University Press of Kansas. His research focuses on the intersection of conservatism, youth culture and politics in the 20th century. 

For more on youth politics in 1968, check out this piece on Black students and campus protests or this archival profile of one student-led protest. For another perspective on Nixon and the 1968 election, view this piece on law-and-order rhetoric.

[1] Richard Nixon, “Today’s Youth: The Great Generation,” NBC Radio (October16, 1968); James K. Batten, “Politics 1968: Obeisance at the Altar of Youth,” St. Petersburg Times, July 18, 1968, 1.

[2] Ronald Docksai, “Welcome to theRemnant,” New Guard, Young Americans for Freedom, 1965-1972. 1961–Sterling, VA, Serial Publication, Boston Public Library, Boston, MA. October 1971, 4.

[3] Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, “Inside Report: Nixon’s Youth Movement,” The Victoria Advocate, September 8, 1966, 4A; Mason, Richard Nixon and the Quest for a New Majority, 17.

[4] “People Want Safety on the Streets: Nixon Says Law and Order Concerns Americans Most,” Reading Eagle (Reading, PA), October 27, 1968, 21.

[5] Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, “Inside Report: Nixon’s Youth Movement,” The Victoria Advocate, September 8, 1966, 4A.

[6] Boisfeuillet Jones, “The Young Republican Plight,” The Harvard Crimson, Tuesday, July 7, 1967. Under the YR constitution, the organization’s president appointed thirty-four of the executive committee’s sixty-seven members and established “the Syndicate” as the majority.

[7] Mort Allin, “Youth for Nixon FinalReport,” 14; Folder: Subject Files, Alphabetical (JSM) Youth [2 of 3]; Box 27; Papers of JSM, Nixon Library, Yorba Linda, CA., 10 and 14.

[8] John Herbers, “Conservatives Laud Choice; Moderates Dismayed,” New York Times, August 9, 1968, 19.

[9] “Youths Say G.O.P. Convention Was Irrelevant to Their World,” New York Times, August 19, 1968, 30.

[10] Michael A. Cohen, American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); See Lassiter, Silent Majority, 234, “The law-and-order platform at the center of Nixon’s suburban strategy tapped into Middle American resentment toward antiwar demonstrators and black militants but consciously employed a color-blind discourse that deflected these charges of racial demagoguery and insulated theRepublicans from direct comparisons to Wallace.” “Student NEA Beefs Up Political Image,” guest column, National Education Association, Florence Times Daily, August 29, 1970, 4; Illinois Citizens for Nixon, September 28, 1968; 1968 Political Campaign Topical File, Students for Nixon; Box 82, WSOF Papers of Len Garment.

[11] Allin, 14 and 9. Seagull, “Youth Vote and Change in American Politics,” 95. James Lamare, “Inter-or-Intragenerational Cleavage? The PoliticalOrientations of American Youth in 1968,” American Journal of Political Science 19, no. 1 (February 1975): 81. While Wallace won only 14 percent of the voters over thirty, 24 percent of non-high-school graduates under thirty supported his candidacy in 1968. Sylvan Fox, “Scores of Youth Seized in Anti-election Protest across the Nation,” New York Times, November 6, 1968, 3.

[12] Allin, 18.

[13] Harold Buckner to President, December 28, 1970; Folder: Presidents Commission on Campus Unrest 1/1 January 1, 1971 to March 27, 1971; Box: FG 288; Richard Nixon Papers, [NARA II, College Park, MD]. Kenneth Keniston and Michael Lerner. “Campus Characteristics and Campus Unrest,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science395 (1971): 39-53, 44. Joseph Kraft, “Foes of War Can Help to Rally Voters,” Youngstown Vindicator, May 11, 1970, B-2.

[14] “Much Ado about Nothing,” Lipscomb Babbler,October 3, 1969, 2; Michael Rossman, “The Sound of Marching, Charging Feet,” Rolling Stone 30 (April 5, 1969): 6.

[15] “Hickel Tells Nixon: Heed Youth Cries,” Modesto Bee, July 7, 1970, 17. Tom Davis to Haldeman, July 2, 1970; File: Youth Programs, 1 of 2; Box 158; SMOF H. R Haldeman; Papers of Richard Nixon, NARA II, College Park, MD. Campus Opinion, August 12, 1971; Folder: Youth Programs [1 of 2]; Box 158; PHRH, NARA II.

[16] Ken Rietz interview, June 6, 2012.