Politics and Elections

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With the two major exceptions of the Korean War (1940–1953) and the Vietnam War (1965–1973), the Cold War involved little actual military conflict. It was primarily a war of nerves in which the United States sought both to prevent war with the Soviet Union and China—war that could have escalated to nuclear war—and at the same time contain communism within its existing boundaries, where presumably it would eventually wither away on its own.

heightened awareness of events abroad

Fearing both nuclear annihilation and the spread of communism, Americans were strongly influence by events abroad during presidential elections. This was particularly true at the height of the Cold War, in the 1950s and 1960s. In a June 1951 Survey Research Center poll on foreign affairs, in which respondents were asked how often they thought about world affairs, 55 percent said they thought about them a great deal, and only 13 percent said they hardly thought about them at all. According to a Gallup poll conducted right after 1952 election, 72 percent of respondents said they thought the Korean War was the biggest problem Eisenhower should deal with after he took office. And in 1953, in a Survey Research Center poll that asked respondents if they thought the country was overly concerned with other nation's problems, 51 percent disagreed and only 46 percent agreed. (See figure 1.)

Subsequent polling data indicates that this heightened level of concern about foreign policy concern lasted into the 1972 election. When respondents were asked in each election poll between 1960 and 1972 what they considered to be the most important issue facing the nation, invariably foreign affairs and national defense received the most mentions. This figure reached a high mark of 62 percent in 1960, the year when John F. Kennedy asserted that the United States lagged behind the Soviet Union in missile production. It was also extremely high in 1968 (51 percent), when the country was embroiled in the Vietnam War, with no clear end in sight and many critics arguing that the United States could not win. Foreign policy remained the number one issue in the 1972


The Most Important Problem the Government Should Try to Take Care of According to Election Year
AgriculturalEconomics/Business/Consumer IssuesForeign Affairs & National DefenseGovernment FunctioningLabor Issues (not unemployment)Natural ResourcesPublic OrderRacial ProblemsSocial Welfare
American National Election Studies 1948–2002 Cumulative Data File.
Election Year19606.3%8.3%62.5%.4%2.2%.2%.1%5.4%14.7%

election, but this changed after the United States ended its involvement ended in Vietnam and entered an era of détente with the Soviet Union, leaving Americans feeling free to turn their attention to matters at home.

republicans and democrats

Until then, however, foreign policy easily dwarfed all other issues in American presidential politics. For example, in 1968—the same year in which Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and riots flared across the nation—only 9 percent of those polled by the Survey Research Center said they thought Civil Rights were the major issue. In most election years, the focus on foreign policy worked to the advantage of the Republican Party; the exception was in 1964, when for the first time since World War II more people thought the Democrats could handle foreign affairs better than the Republicans. That was the same year the Republican Party nominated the ultraconservative Barry Goldwater to run against Lyndon Johnson. No doubt Goldwater's reckless suggestions—for example, that field commanders should be given discretion whether to use tactical or conventional nuclear weapons—convinced many Americans that he was unstable and was far more likely than Lyndon Johnson to lead them to war. In numerous television commercials that year, the Democratic Party emphasized the imminent threat of a nuclear war if Goldwater won the election. In the most famous of these, a little girl picks petals from a flower until she reached the ninth one, when an adult voice broke in and counted down to a nuclear explosion. The commercial ended with a mushroom cloud replacing the girl and the flowers. Americans wanted to avoid nuclear war at all costs, and more voters trusted the Democratic Party (38 percent) to maintain the peace than trusted the Republicans (12 percent). These voters helped propel Lyndon Johnson to a victory of landslide proportions—61 percent of the popular vote, 486 electoral votes, and victories in forty-four states compared to just six states and 52 electoral votes for Goldwater. (See figure 2.)

The 1964 election was the only time the Republican Party lost its electoral advantage on foreign policy until the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. During the Clinton years (1993–2000), the Democratic Party held the advantage. In the 1992 election, for the first time since World War II, more voters who said foreign policy was the number one issue voted Democratic than Republican (53 percent vs. 47 percent). In retrospect, this seems amazing considering that Clinton was widely criticized before and during his presidency for avoiding service during the Vietnam War and that George H. W. Bush had just led the United States to victory in the 1991 Gulf War. In 1996, 58 percent again preferred Clinton to Senator Robert Dole (42

percent). Then in the 2000 election the pendulum swung back in favor of the Republican Party even though the Republican candidate George W. Bush was clearly less experienced in foreign policy matters than his Democratic opponent Albert Gore, and unlike Gore had not served in Vietnam. (See figure 3.)

the economy and events abroad

After 1972, Americans became less concerned about foreign policy issues and turned their attention to issues such as such as the economy, inflation, and unemployment. It would be incorrect, however, to assume that foreign policy no longer had an impact on elections. Ronald Reagan recognized this during his 1980 campaign, when he emphasized the need for increased defense spending to counter the strength of the Soviet Union and vehemently opposed the SALT treaty, which would have led to arms reduction. According to Reagan, a stronger military would prevent such incidents as the seizing of Americans


Which Party Better Able to Keep America Out of War, 1956–2000
Better by DemocratsSame by bothBetter by RepublicansDK/depends (1972)/neither (2000)
Row %Row %Row %Row %
American National Election Studies 1948–2002 Cumulative Data File.
Election Year19567.5%45.3%40.6%6.7%

at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. However, while millions of Americans were attracted to Reagan because of his hard stance against the Soviet Union, far more of them believed that homefront issues were more important. According to Survey Research Center polling data from 1980, 46 percent of Americans considered the economy the most important issue, in contrast to only 32 percent who believed it was foreign policy. It is interesting to note that this poll was taken while hostages were being held in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. This did not go unnoticed within the Republican Party and during his campaign Reagan took advantage of Jimmy Carter's vulnerability on the economy by hammering away at what he referred to as the misery index (inflation plus unemployment). It was this issue, together with the hostage crisis, that ended the Carter presidency.

In 1992, with the economy faltering under George H. W. Bush, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton focused almost entirely on the economy. With unemployment peaking at 8 percent in July 1992, the Clinton campaign rallied its supporters with the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid!" Even though unemployment fell back to 7 percent by the time of the election, and gross domestic product surged at a 5 percent annual rate, Clinton went on


Which Party Better Able to Handle Foreign Policy, 1972–2000
Forign Affairs & National Defense
1. Democrats3. Not much5. Republicans8. DK/other (1972 only) neither
Row %Row %Row %Row %
American National Election Studies 1948–2002 Cumulative Data File.
Election Year197222.0%39.8%32.0%8.2S%

to win the presidency. Even the third party candidacy of Ross Perot highlighted economic issues with a focus on deficit reduction. Although the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 under a Republican watch and the Bush campaign tried to take credit for it, the Cold War was no longer an important issue and the Democrats were able to focus almost exclusively on domestic concerns.

During the 1996 and 2000 elections, no major divisive foreign policy issues arose, and Americans continued to focus most of their attention on the domestic front. By 2004, attention turned to foreign policy issues involving terrorism and the war in Iraq. George W. Bush emphasized his successes in the war on terror and John Kerry focused on Bush's failures, particularly the questionable intelligence that was used to justify the war with Iraq. Although the economy was on the rebound, Democrats pointed out that there were well over 2,500,000 fewer jobs than when Bush took office and that the federal budget surpluses of 1998 to 2001 had turned into deficits.


In 1964 conservative Republican Senator Barry M. Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination on the first ballot. In his acceptance speech on July 16, 1964 he accused the Administration of being "soft" on communism: "Now failure cements the wall of shame in Berlin; failures blot the sands of shame at the Bay of Pigs; failures marked slow death of freedom in Laos; failures infest the jungles of Vietnam, and failures haunt the houses of our once great alliances and undermine the greatest bulwark ever erected by free nations, the NATO community."

Goldwater saw the "lost leadership" of the Democrats as allowing for new aggression by communist forces, and he believed fervently that communism was the greatest threat facing mankind. "Now the Republican cause demands that we brand Communism as the principal disturber of peace in the world today," he continued. "Indeed, we should brand it as the only significant disturber of the peace. And we must make clear that until its goals of conquest are absolutely renounced, and its relations with all nations tempered, Communism and the governments it now controls are enemies of every man on earth who is or wants to be free."

During the presidential campaign, the Democrats used Goldwater's extreme anti-Communist position to portray him as unfit to have his finger on the nuclear trigger. converting his campaign slogan "In your heart, you know he's right" to "In your guts, you know he's nuts." One of two televised commercials that played to viewers' fears about the Cold War portrayed a girl plucking the petals from a daisy. In the background, a man's voice is heard, counting down. Then an explosion covers the screen and a mushroom cloud appears. Finally, a male voice urges viewers to elect President Lyndon B. Johnson. "These are the stakes: To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or go into the dark. We must either love each or other, or we must die. Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home." Goldwater stated that this and the other "bomb" commercial misrepresented his position, which "called for treaty guarantees and other safeguards for the United States."

After Goldwater lodged a complaint about the commercials with the Federal Campaign Practices Committee, the Democratic National Committee discontinued the ads. Even so, for Goldwater the damage was already done. The Johnson-Humphrey ticket won by a landslide. The Goldwater-Miller ticket won only six states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, and Arizona.

As the polling data show, American domestic politics after World War II were directly affected by the Cold War. The rhetoric of elections between 1945 and 1955 focused on internal and external security, as exemplified by the actions of President Truman to ensure loyalty and support rearmament; by McCarthyism; and by the debate over Korea. Even the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s through 1970s was affected by events abroad as America sought, as part of its Cold War stance, to present a picture of a country that fulfilled its ideals, which included the equality of all citizens. Confrontations with China in 1960 and with the Soviet Union and Cuba in 1962 brought the world to the verge of nuclear war. Campaign rhetoric in the elections in the 1960s aimed at convincing voters that one party was more capable than another of assuring national security and winning the war against communism while avoiding nuclear holocaust. The defeat of the Democratic candidate in 1968 was partly due to the antiwar movement having discredited the Johnson administration's handling of the conflict in Vietnam. Many people thought that with the end of communism and the Cold War in 1991 American politics and elections would focus entirely on domestic matters. That expectation has proven to be naïve. America's emergence as the world's only superpower and its assumption of increased responsibilities in dealing with conflicts throughout the world have continued to affect American society and culture.

James C. Mott

See alsoBush, George H. W.; Bush, George W.; Civil Rights Movement; Clinton, William Jefferson; Communism and Anticommunism; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Goldwater, Barry; Jackson, Jesse Louis; Johnson, Lyndon Baines; Kennedy, John Fitzgerald; Korea, Impact of; McCarthyism; Nixon, Richard M.; Reagan, Ronald; Truman, Harry S.

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Politics and Elections

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Politics and Elections