On March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson stunned everyone by announcing that he would not run for a second term as President. Johnson had gone on television at nine o’clock that evening to address the nation on the war in Vietnam. It was not going well. In the past three years, the United States had dropped more tons of bombs on Vietnam than were dropped by all the belligerents combined in the Second World War. Twenty thousand Americans had died there, four thousand in the previous two months, following a surprise attack, known as the Tet Offensive, by North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces. Enemy losses were much higher, but that only made the war seem more horrific and out of control.
The New Hampshire primary, held on March 12, 1968, made those people think again. It wasn’t because McCarthy did especially well. Johnson’s name was not on the Democratic ballot, but he won easily as a write-in candidate, with forty-nine per cent of the Democratic vote. McCarthy got forty-two per cent, despite the fact that his name was the only name on the ballot, and even though he had five thousand New Hampshire students and two thousand out-of-state volunteers canvassing the state for him. McCarthy received about twenty-two thousand Democratic votes, roughly three votes for every campaign worker.
In national politics, twenty-two thousand was not an intimidating number of votes—twenty-two thousand people would not even fill half of Yankee Stadium—and New Hampshire was not a state that Democrats needed to carry. In the previous five Presidential elections, it had voted Republican four times. (The exception was the Johnson landslide in 1964.) The winner of the Republican primary, Richard Nixon, got eighty-four thousand votes, thirty thousand more than Johnson and McCarthy combined. But blood was in the water, and four days later, on March 16th, Robert F. Kennedy, the junior senator from New York, declared his candidacy.
If Kennedy hadn’t entered the race, Johnson could have fended off McCarthy. In 1968, the primaries played a minor role in the delegate-selection process. Thirty-six states did not even hold them. The parties controlled the process. The man who eventually won the Democratic nomination, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice-President, did not enter a single primary.
The message of New Hampshire, therefore, was not that McCarthy was the answer to the nation’s troubles. It was that Johnson was the face of what many voters wanted to get away from. New Hampshire did not make McCarthy seem electable so much as it made Johnson seem beatable. That was the message that Kennedy had been waiting to hear, and he wasted little time jumping into the race. He was accused, rightly, of opportunism.