Kennedy’s campaign continued on to Oregon for a May 28 primary, ultimately losing to Eugene McCarthy by a margin of 44 to 38 percent. The Oregon electorate favored McCarthy because it largely consisted of middle-class white voters. It was the first loss for any of the Kennedy brothers after twenty-seven consecutive electoral victories.
Robert Kennedy rebounded from that loss to defeat McCarthy in California and South Dakota on June 4. The California win was especially significant because the state had a unique winner-take-all rule for the delegates. Every other state allocated delegates in rough proportion to the candidates’ share of the popular vote. In contrast, California awarded all 174 delegates to the popular vote winner. Even though Kennedy beat McCarthy by a narrow 46% to 42% margin in California, he received all of the delegates.
Kennedy won South Dakota with 50% of the vote with strong support from Native Americans. Humphrey finished second with 30% and McCarthy came in last with 20% of the vote. Kennedy was rewarded for his foray to the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Wounded Knee Massacre site.
Kennedy and his supporters were jubilant in his suite at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles that night. Larry O’Brien was upbeat: “The nomination is within our grasp. But it’s not locked up.” For the first time since he announced for president, Kennedy believed he could win. “Make room for the next leader of the free world,” he quipped. Presumptive Republican nominee Richard Nixon told his family that “it sure looks like we’ll be going against Bobby,”
Despite Kennedy’s impressive showing, he still trailed Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the all-important delegate count. The delegate breakdown was as follows:
The magic number needed to clinch the nomination was 1,312.
Tragically, fate intervened; Kennedy’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet that night in Los Angeles. But what if Kennedy had lived?
To secure the nomination, Kennedy would have had to win the bulk of the undecided delegates and peel away some delegates who were committed to Humphrey and McCarthy. The party leaders who controlled the vast majority of the remaining delegates would need to be convinced to support Kennedy. Perhaps the most important party leader was Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who controlled the Illinois delegation. Additionally, Daley had sufficient influence to convince party leaders outside of Illinois to back Kennedy. As Kennedy said early in the campaign: “Dick Daley is the ballgame.”
Evidence uncovered in the last several years shows that Daley planned to endorse Kennedy if he won the California primary. On the evening of June 4 Kennedy called his longtime friend and advisor Kenny O’Donnell, who was in Washington with Daley ally and Illinois U.S. House member Dan Rostenkowski. It was then that O’Donnell told Kennedy he was going to win the nomination, to which Kennedy responded “I think I may.”
The New York Senator then asked Rostenkowski for an endorsement. Rostenkowski replied: “Daley is my guy. I do what Daley tells me…. you win California, you get Daley, we all come along.” Both O’Donnell and Rostenkowski assured Kennedy that the Illinois delegation would support him. O’Donnell ended the conversation with excited congratulations: “Bobby, you did it, you son of a bitch! See you tomorrow.”
The Kennedy campaign was in a good position to take advantage of a Daley endorsement because they already had a detailed campaign plan ready to roll out after June 4. The first move was to encourage soft McCarthy supporters to defect to the Kennedy camp. Anti-war activist and McCarthy supporter Allard Lowenstein planned to switch his support to Kennedy if he won the California primary. Sam Brown, who had organized McCarthy’s New Hampshire campaign, and several other senior McCarthy advisors told Jeff Greenfield that they planned to support Kennedy if he won in California. It is doubtful if McCarthy would have backed Kennedy after California; he was still bitter about Kennedy’s entry into the race. Moreover, he did not endorse Humphrey until one week before the general election.
The primary after California was in New York on June 18. It was also the last primary on the schedule in 1968. Kennedy had planned a two-week blitz to nail down most of New York’s rich delegate haul. Kennedy insiders believed that he was in a position to win as many as one hundred sixty out of New York’s one hundred ninety delegates. Furthermore, the Kennedy campaign planned a national television advertising campaign after the last primary and in the run up to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. They were to run two major documentaries on Kennedy as well as numerous short television advertisements.
Simultaneously, Kennedy planned to campaign in twenty-six states and in all of the major urban areas. The New York Senator wanted to convert the pre-convention phase of the campaign into a sort of national primary aimed at convincing both undecided delegates, and delegates already committed to the other candidates, to support him. Kennedy planned to wrap up this phase of the campaign with a trip to Poland, Italy, West Germany, and West Berlin aimed at further burnishing his foreign policy credentials.
Kennedy would have enjoyed huge crowds and a very warm reception in Europe, reminding voters back home that he was essentially the deputy president during the Kennedy Administration. As Attorney General in the Johnson Administration and a U.S. Senator, Kennedy had made tours of countries as diverse as Indonesia, Chile, South Africa, and Poland. On all of his foreign tours, Kennedy had been greeted by huge and enthusiastic crowds. He would have received a similar reception as a leading presidential candidate. This would have impressed many voters back home.
The Kennedy campaign was convinced that support for Humphrey was soft, that his delegate totals were inflated, and that support for Humphrey would decline during the summer months. Moreover, young voters were already cooling on McCarthy following his personal attacks on Kennedy in Oregon — they felt it would be better if he had directed his wrath at Humphrey instead.
In Oregon, McCarthy’s bitterness over Kennedy’s entry into the race boiled over into some vicious personal attacks that alienated younger, idealistic voters that had supported the Minnesota Senator. He repeatedly accused Kennedy of cowardice because the New York Senator had declined to debate him. McCarthy ridiculed Kennedy’s dog, saying: “I have not been able to understand how bringing Freckles out really helped make it easier to choose on the basis of the issues.” The Minnesota Senator even made a sarcastic remark that: “I suppose that we’ll also read next that Bobby Kennedy’s people will leak a story that there’s been an attempt on his life.”
If Kennedy had lacked the requisite 1,312 delegates to win the nomination, his campaign planned a rules challenge to flip delegates from Humphrey to his campaign. The delegations from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia were all white — in violation of the rules for the convention when they were required to send racially representative delegations. Moreover, approximately six hundred delegates came from southern states.The problem for Kennedy was that most of those six hundred delegates were committed to Humphrey.
The delegations from many of these states were also bound by the “unit rule,” which bound all delegates to vote with a majority of the delegation. In other words, the unit rule bound the minority of delegates who supported Kennedy to vote for Humphrey. This rule existed to increase southern clout in selecting a presidential nominee, which helped preserve segregation in the south for decades. Southern influence only began to decline in 1948. Kennedy planned to file a challenge to the unit rule and the segregated delegations by moving to seat his own slate of delegates, who were half white and half Black. Humphrey was a champion of civil rights and he would have been under enormous pressure to agree to Kennedy’s challenges. A successful rules challenge would have won the nomination for Kennedy.
A Kennedy nomination would have likely prevented the anti-war riots that wrecked the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Those riots fractured the Democratic Party and Humphrey left Chicago as a heavy underdog. The Democratic Party would have united around Kennedy. According to Greenfield, Kennedy and Humphrey genuinely liked each other. It was certainly a reasonable possibility that if Kennedy had won the nomination, Humphrey would have endorsed him and even introduced him when he gave his nominating speech.
As it turned out, a wounded Humphrey and a divided Democratic Party nearly won the 1968 election. Nixon won the popular vote by a narrow 43.4 to 42.7 percent margin over Humphrey. Segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace finished third with 13.5 percent of the popular vote. The electoral vote was almost as close: Nixon beat Humphrey 301 to 191 in the electoral college and Wallace finished with 46 electoral votes by carrying five states in the south.
Former Kennedy speechwriter Jeff Greenfield makes a convincing case that Kennedy would have defeated Nixon in both the popular vote and electoral vote. Nixon narrowly carried Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, and California. A united Democratic Party and a presidential nominee free of Lyndon Johnson’s baggage could have flipped those four states and won the election. If so, Kennedy would have defeated Nixon 300 to 192 in the electoral college.
A Kennedy presidency would have been much different — and much better — than a Nixon presidency. President Robert Kennedy would have made ending American involvement in Vietnam a high priority; likely winding down America’s involvement during his first term. Nixon wanted to end or significantly limit American’s military intervention in Vietnam. However, he did not want to do that during his first term because he knew that South Vietnam would collapse without American aid. He also did not want to be the first American president to lose a war during his first term, believing that would jeopardize his re-election prospects. Nixon’s refusal to quickly deescalate the war unnecessarily cost thousands of lives.
A Kennedy Administration would have most likely passed a universal health care bill. In 1974, Nixon introduced a plan similar to the Affordable Care Act that would have guaranteed health insurance for all Americans. The Nixon plan would have reached its goals with an employer mandate, subsidies for the purchase of private insurance, and a public option. Senator Ted Kennedy supported the Nixon plan and tried to rally Democratic support. Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO rejected Nixon’s plan and held out for a single payer system. Ted Kennedy told the AFL-CIO’s lobbyist “this is the best deal we’re going to get.” The Massachusetts Senator later said that organized labor was “holding out for the perfect, rather than dealing with the good.”
President Robert Kennedy — like his younger brother — likely would have supported a plan similar to Nixon’s. Afterall, he was not a conventional liberal; Robert Kennedy supported using the private sector to achieve progressive goals. As President, Robert Kennedy would have pushed a bill similar to the Affordable Care Act across the finish line with a coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans.
A Kennedy presidency had the potential to unite the country. In contrast, Nixon gained power and maintained power by polarization and pitting Americans against each other. Kennedy’s unique coalition of blue-collar whites, ethnic whites, young people, farmers, African-Americans, and Latino/as demonstrated his ability to unite the country.
By 1968 most Americans were disillusioned with big government, crime, and the Vietnam War. This weariness and dissatisfaction made it possible for Nixon to gain power by dividing voters using dog whistles and racially coded appeals. His election marked the beginning of the long conservative era that endured until the financial crisis of 2008, ushering in the greatest division and inequality experienced in the United States since 1929. Starting with the Reagan administration, all financial gains have been funneled to the wealthy while the middle and working classes have lost ground. This has destabilized both the economy and political systems of the United States.
Robert Kennedy was likely the only politician of his era who could have arrested the advent of the conservative era. With his broad coalition, and the coordination of both private sector and government to achieve progressive ends, Kennedy could have maintained the Democratic coalition that dominated American politics between 1932 and 1968. The Vietnam War would have ended swiftly, saving many lives. The Watergate scandal would not have been. Had Robert Kennedy been president, the United States may have avoided the era of cynicism toward the government and other American institutions. As such, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination stands as one of the greatest tragedies of American history, perhaps on par only with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. His death marked the demise of hope for many Americans, who anticipated the consequences the country faces even today.