Style Points: RFK Wins Indiana
Written By: Jeremy Meier
Today’s American public is well familiar with the seemingly never-ending primary season—the long leadup and prologue to the summer conventions feels like it goes on like a presidential opera in eight acts. We see hopefuls in each party launching hype campaigns months before Iowa and New Hampshire begin our national Ring Cycle of caucuses and primaries. But the dance of narrowing the party hopefuls wasn’t always set in quite the same Wagner-esque form we now know.
In the 1960s, a candidate racking up delegates in individual states was not a sure path to getting the Republican or Democratic nomination for the presidency. Not all states held primaries or caucuses. Winning delegates at state level meant little unless the wins showed something significant to the party bosses.
Who were the voters the candidate could attract? What kind of excitement did the candidate draw in winning? How would this translate in a November election? Style points mattered.
Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy had brazenly entered the presidential race in November of 1967, opposing an incumbent from his own party. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s popularity had taken a dive among a key demographic with the continuation of the Vietnam War. College-aged voters became a powerful base in the form of the “Clean for Gene” movement backing McCarthy. There was a sense of momentum and youthful enthusiasm pushing his campaign forward. Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy entered the contest four months later and needed some of that energy in his campaign. The Indiana primary on May 7, 1968 would be the first primary in which RFK would be eligible. McCarthy knew Indiana would be the most significant showdown yet. In McCarthy’s opinion, Indiana would set the pace for “the way the Democratic party goes in Chicago,” where the 1968 Democratic Convention would be held.
By the time for the push for Indiana, Johnson had pulled out of the race. The resulting two-way competition of McCarthy versus Kennedy was not so simple though. Indiana Governor Roger Branigan entered the race—just in his home state primary—as a place holder for the inevitable entry of Vice President Hubert Humphrey seeking the party nomination at the Democratic Convention.
Conventions looked a lot different in 1968.
Kennedy knew he had to win with aplomb to make a positive impression with the party bosses. Ahead of the May 7 primary, he met resistance with the local press. According to headlines in the Indianapolis Star, RFK was “Unfit, Unshorn, Unwanted.”
Throughout April, Bobby spent a lot of time in Indiana. He held rallies in urban centers like Indianapolis, Gary, East Chicago, and South Bend. He spoke to farmers in rural districts. He had to show dexterity in this kind of campaigning.
When Kennedy pulled off the Indiana victory on May 7 (42% of the vote, Branigan came in second with 31%), he hoped he had demonstrated an element of versatility that would be attractive to the party bosses. It’s true, he had fared far better in urban districts but he had still won almost two-thirds of the counties.
“I’ve proved I can really be a leader of a broad spectrum,” RFK said. “I can be a bridge between Blacks and whites without stepping back from my positions.”
The New York Times wrote that the clear Democratic frontrunner after the Indiana race was third-place (and last place) finisher McCarthy.
Style points are subjective.