The massive war effort, initiated by President Kennedy and expanded by President Johnson, was so closely tied to the identity of the Democratic Party that its chances of winning the 1968 presidential election were rapidly approaching zero.
In a last-ditch effort to change public opinion, the Democrats attempted to insinuate that Richard Nixon was less than enthusiastic in his support for African-American civil rights.
This effort backfired. Nixon’s public record included his efforts to round up votes in Congress, both for the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and for the 1960 Civil Rights Act. By contrast, both Kennedy and Johnson had opposed those two bills.
In an August 1968 televised commentary, William F. Buckley noted that
Mr. Nixon was backing civil rights bills way before John Kennedy was in point of historical circumstance.
Johnson, an unrepentant racist, would eventually be shamed into offering at least lip service to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He did so on the basis of purely political calculations. Nixon, on the other hand, had supported civil rights legislation nearly a decade earlier, when it was less popular to do so.
It is unverifiable at best, and hazardous at worst, to speculate about a leader’s psychological motivations, but it’s worth noting that Nixon was raised in a Quaker household in California. Those two aspects of his heritage may have made him more willing to take unpopular stands. Buckley said that
The time to back a civil rights bill, you may have noticed, is as of the moment when it becomes popular. Up until that moment it becomes completely forgivable if you don’t do so. Lyndon Johnson is considered a great friend of the Negro people, but he voted against a whole series of civil rights bills over a period of years.
As Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon’s legislative efforts had been noted by Black voters, who gave him a decent showing in the 1960 national elections. Buckley argued that, in the intervening eight years, there’d been no real change in Nixon’s allegiances:
Some 30 to 35 percent of the Negro people voted for Nixon in 1960. I think somebody ought to get around to telling us what it is that Mr. Nixon has done since 1960 that alienates those votes.
In 1968, a trend emerged which would later be called ‘identity politics’ or ‘the politics of identity.’ This strategy calls for candidates to appeal to voters, not as rational human beings who share the common needs and wants of all human beings, but rather as isolated groups: by race, by religion, by gender, etc.
Rather than assuming that voters are rational human beings who share the same desires for peace, prosperity, justice, liberty, and freedom, the tactic of ‘identity politics’ divides voters into demographic segments, and dictates that they should vote a certain way because they are men or because they are women, because they are African-American or European-American, because they are Jewish or because they are Christian.
This approach would come to dominate national electoral politics a few decades laters, but in 1968, it was in its infancy. Buckley noted that those who opposed Nixon
are trying very hard to mobilize all of the Negro votes on a racist basis. On the one hand, they tell us we shouldn’t treat people as simply members of a race, members of a group. On the other hand, they’re always trying to deploy them as members of a group, members of a race.
As it turned out, Nixon won by a large margin in November 1968 and became president. In hindsight, especially after the events of the Watergate scandal, it is difficult to see Nixon with the untainted view which the voters had of him at that time.
Not only did Nixon continue to effectively promote civil rights during his presidency, but he also ended the Vietnam war and ended the draft. Nixon effectively desegregated labor unions and integrated both schools and neighborhoods.
The Democratic Party’s self-destructive meltdown in 1968 hamstrung it for several years afterward, enabling Nixon’s easy reelection in 1972.