Have you noticed all the comparisons on TV and in print between the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964 and the Donald Trump campaign of 2016? It’s true both Goldwater was, and Trump is, the Republican nominee for president. And both could be fairly termed insurgent winners and highly controversial candidates. Yet the similarities are being dramatically overplayed. No doubt any regular reader of the Crystal Ball can cite a dozen ways these two politicians are temperamentally and substantively far removed. For the moment, we’ll focus on just four:
1. Goldwater was the legitimate, somewhat reluctant champion of a conservative movement that eventually took control of the Republican Party. Trump is an idiosyncratic candidate who is abhorred by many of Goldwater’s heirs in the GOP. Any balanced reading of Trump’s political philosophy would lead to the conclusion that his ideology is an ever-changing hodge-podge. The Goldwater movement was all about consistent conservatism. The Trump effort is certainly about illegal immigration, approaches to terrorism, and some other conservative issues, but mainly it is about him — a giant personality that inspires intense loyalty to an individual far more than to a specific cause.
2. Goldwater battled “The Establishment,” just like Trump, but it was a very different establishment. In Goldwater’s case, there was a liberal, sectional GOP establishment heavily concentrated on the Eastern seaboard and in the industrial Midwest — the Rockefeller wing, named after New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. By contrast, Trump has targeted virtually the entire elected superstructure of the Republican Party. It was difficult to find more than a handful of members of Congress backing Trump in the primaries, and it is hard to identify many GOP senators and representatives who are on the front lines for him in the general election. Goldwater lost the moderates in his party, for sure, but he also had many elected Republican officials advocating for him, especially in the West, South, and rural heartland.
3. The pattern of high-level non-support for the Republican presidential nominee is especially divergent. Goldwater had the endorsements of the only two living former GOP presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover, in the general election, plus that of the prior GOP nominee, Richard Nixon. Trump does not have the backing of the only two living former GOP presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, nor of the party’s previous White House nominee, Mitt Romney. (Note: Hoover died on Oct. 20, 1964, but prior to that, he had warmly endorsed Goldwater and told associates that Goldwater’s “small government” stance was very similar to his.)
4. In the end, Goldwater lost in a massive landslide in which he won just 38.5% of the vote and only 52 electors (from the states of Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina). While we have 89 days to go before Election Day 2016, it is very unlikely that Trump will suffer a defeat of this magnitude. Partisan polarization is far more intense today than it was in 1964, and there is a much smaller percentage of the electorate considered “movable” across party lines. As a consequence, a large majority of states are firmly fixed as Democratic blue or Republican red. In our latest map, the Crystal Ball considers 18 states with 136 electoral votes to be solidly Republican, with another five states (and 55 electoral votes) likely or leaning Republican. So even an impressive win by Hillary Clinton probably won’t approach the sweep achieved by Lyndon Johnson — 61.1% of the national popular vote, 486 electoral votes, and 44 states.
For that, at least, Trump will be grateful, and in yet another respect the Trump-Goldwater contrast will be very clear.