Podcast: Seth Blumenthal on President Nixon and the Youth Vote
President Nixon speaks at a youth rally. (Richard Nixon Foundation).
Seth Blumenthal is senior lecturer at Boston University.
On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we explore how President Nixon built his majority winning coalition in 1972 with a forward thinking innovative appeal to younger voters.
Our guest is Seth Blumenthal, senior lecturer at Boston University and author of “Children of the Silent Majority: Young Voters and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1968-1980.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or @nixonfoundation.org. How did President Nixon build his majority coalition with a forward and innovative appeal to younger voters in 1972? Seth Blumenthal explains this in his new book, “Children of the Silent Majority: Young Voters and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1968-1980.” Dr. Blumenthal is a historian and senior lecturer at Boston University. You can follow him on twitter @sethblumenthal. Seth, welcome.
Seth Blumenthal: Thanks for having me.
Jonathan Movroydis: Seth, first can you give us a little background on I guess what inspired you to research this topic and ultimately write this book?
Seth Blumenthal: Yeah. Well, you know, this began as an attempt to really to reconsider Richard Nixon’s influence on the Republican Party’s ability to win over a generation. And then also an intervention to think about the rise of conservatism, the rise of the right, and also to think about modern political campaign strategies such as polling and image-making, you know, to look sort of beyond Watergate, to think about that was, you know, Nixon’s wider significance. And, you know, that was an approach that a lot of Nixon’s scholars tended to support when I was in graduate school. I will say, however, you know, the Trump presidency has made my efforts to put Watergate on the side increasingly sort of difficult. Still with the rise of youth politics recently, I think politics today still underlines the book’s message about the role that young voters can play.
Jonathan Movroydis: And what was your primary research for this? You know, where did you look for to develop your story?
Seth Blumenthal: Well, the papers at the Nixon Library are phenomenal on 1972 and what I call CRP were notoriously known as Creep. But Jeb Magruder’s papers were fantastic. The other source was Frederic Malek as far as his papers really were valuable in thinking about the citizens group and how Nixon’s campaign was really forward-thinking the way they thought about segmenting their constituency and the targeted approach and the way it merged with some of Madison Avenue’s smartest guys. They really thought about ways they could win over groups like the youth.
And the youth vote was really above and beyond those other citizen groups that were so important like the ethnic groups and the Plumbers for Nixon and the different targeted elements of Democrats for Nixon, of course, was well known. And Youth for Nixon was the most well-funded of all of them and was really, I think, central to Nixon’s campaign. I think he admittedly would have won without the youth vote, but it showed ways in which Nixon was able to win a landslide and build a future coalition at the same time.
Jonathan Movroydis: You begin your book by talking about President Nixon’s second inaugural January 20th, 1973 as having what Nixon wanted, this particular inaugural ceremony and inaugural balls that followed a heavy accent on youth. Could you describe the scene?
Seth Blumenthal: Well, you know, Nixon knew that pulling off the youth vote would be a great counter-intuitive and he loved those. And this is his way really to shift the narrative, to challenge all the people who predicted that young people were going to lean left and that they were an obstacle in his mission to bring in a conservative era politically. And Nixon wanted to show it off. He really wanted to emphasize that. I think also not too far off in the distance, and what would have if Nixon had served his term, is something that he would been in office to celebrate was the Bicentennial.
And so, the theme was 1976. Even in 1972 it was this idea of sort of rejuvenation of American patriotism and I think the young people played an especially important symbolic role there. But I think Nixon also saw that his silent majority was more durable and it pushed back on the backlash reputation for the Republican Party that he had really tried to distance himself from even as he pursued many of its elements.
Jonathan Movroydis: When you think about the 1960s youth in America, sort of the historical perspective, often people on both right and left, there’s a notion that these kids were rebellious and radical and there was a generational gap politically. It seems like a bit monolithic. But what do you think actually characterized the youth’s political attitudes?
Seth Blumenthal: Right. So, I think one thing that did unify them, and while there was a strong group on the right, a young cadre of conservatives that pushed for a more full-throated anti-communism speaking of groups on the right, even young Republicans were pushing, you know, in support of the Vietnam War specifically and the Young Americans for Freedom. I think the overwhelming majority of young people opposed the Vietnam War. And I really think that’s something even though there were varying ways of expressing it, whether it be peace through honor or, you know, just ending the war outright, I think there was a consistency.
I think about some people who worked for Nixon’s campaign. Hank Haldeman, Haldeman’s son, who admitted that he had a ponytail and was marching on UCLA’s campus protesting the bombing of the Haiphong Harbor mining and two weeks later working on the campaign. There was room in Nixon’s campaign for people who thought the war should end. And so, I think that’s something that was really important. And when we talk about Nixon’s October Surprise and ending the war, I think that was something that really mattered to a lot of young voters and helped him tremendously, not to mention clearly ending the draft.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you take us through the political parties at this period of time, the Republican and the Democratic Parties? The Democratic Party by the 1968 Convention was split between its traditional New Deal coalition and the so-called new anti-war left while, all at the same time, the Republicans were slowly regaining footing after the devastating loss by Barry Goldwater in 1964 to Lyndon Johnson, but they had picked up some congressional seats in ’66 and then ’68. How were both parties taking shape ideologically at this time?
Seth Blumenthal: Right. So, I think it’s important to note that Nixon, you know, envisioned even creating a new party called the Conservative Party. He always wanted to move politics to the right and sometimes actually used liberal measures to achieve those ends. So, that needs to be established. That said, Nixon’s effort was clearly to moderate the party after 1964 which was a lesson that all conservatives learned as far as how they could win. And you know, the lesson was to in a lot of ways not a Goldwater and that’s what they were called, Young Voters for the President.
This was the group that he set up with over 400,000 members. And, you know, talking about Nixon and race, he said, you know, he was…you know, busing worked in the South as far as Nixon’s position there pushing back on busing. Nixon did sign law in affirmative action though there are some interpretations that see him pulling back a little bit on that right before the election. So, I think as far as race stood that, you know, Nixon took a complicated position on it, but he definitely moderated his image when it came to race.
And so, I think that that was an important step that he took to sort of show what the Republican Party was doing. And his reach out to young voters was really important to show that he had moderated, he could bridge the gap. You know, he was somebody who was never gonna be associated with being hip but he could make kind of a square sheik thing out. And so, I think identity-wise and image-wise, I think young voters were important there and that pertains to the issues as well.
On the other side with the Democrats, they were looking at a problem and that was that the Democratic Coalition was clearly breaking up. As we know, after the 1960s, we begin to see break apart from the solid South and the Democratic Party was looking for an adapted coalition and young voters fit in perfectly. They really envisioned more robust youth vote as they saw the optimism and the apparently left-leaning of liberal activism going on in the 1960s, that the Democrats envisioned a new coalition of young people that could, you know, supplement it’s sort of suburban strategy focus on, you know…and to create a coalition with those voters and also include its traditional hold to some extent on the working class white ethnics that were, you know, living in the white urban enclaves of Northeast and Rust Belt. So, that sort of defines the shifting coalitions and the way young voters fit in there.
Jonathan Movroydis: Your reference to squareness and cheekiness reminds me of when Richard Nixon went on laughing and said, “Sock it to me.”
Seth Blumenthal: Sock it to me is the question. Right. [crosstalk 00:11:27]. Yeah, go ahead.
Jonathan Movroydis: No, I was just gonna ask you, how did the youth vote ultimately in 1968?
Seth Blumenthal: Oh, young voters in 1968? Nixon did very poorly in 1968 and I think some of it was his own doing. He embraced a more law and order approach in 1968. And young voters wanted something, it was an emerging development, it really was in 1972 that his effort on youth politics really shined. And so, between the policy, the tough approach, he took on the generation gap especially his tough position and law and order position on student activism. And, I mean, and you asked earlier what kind of ways we could define a generation and that’s always tricky territory.
But there was one thing that the Nixon people sort of talked about, and that was the, “An attack on one was sort of an attack on all.” That even if people necessarily didn’t share a political sensibility, there was sort of this generational defense mechanism. And so, I think that that’s something that might have happened in 1968, that he sort of alienated young voters. And he only managed about 37 or so percent, if I remember correctly, as far as what he won with young voters, somewhere around what Trump got. So, not great.
Jonathan Movroydis: Theodore White mentions in his book “The Making of the President 1968” that the college age had exploded to about six times since the end of the Second World War. Obviously, during this period of time, the Vietnam War was still at its height and there was a lot of domestic insecurity, you know, based on the rapid social changes in American society and youth. Many youth became very attached to that. Nixon says he wants peace of honor in Vietnam.
And he also imposes as you say, a campaign strategy based on the theme of law and order. Fast forward two years later, in 1970, after the announcement of the U.S. troops’ incursion for an operation in Cambodia the students at Kent State protest. Four students were killed. So, how did the Nixon’s administration square its own youth outreach to this sort of rancorous political environment?
Seth Blumenthal: Well, that was really important because it was really Kent State in many ways that played a huge role, I argue, in getting the 26th Amendment passed. And so, while Nixon was sort of uneasy about how to react to Kent State, he didn’t want to capitulate and it did become a problem. One of his advisors suggested, “You don’t want law and order to become hate and order.” And even his constituency started getting letters of people asking him to find ways to resolve the problems of the generations. He really, I think, only reacted in the ways that he did because Kent State was clearly gonna translate into a political coalition and he followed in some ways the mythology that young people would be a threat to his conservative project.
And so, that is when he really I think began to… I think that’s the significance of Kent State, that it turned the youth vote into a more of a political liability for Nixon. Also, I mean. they did polling all through 1970 and he was doing horribly on campuses. And so, it just was a bad PR thing. So, that’s when you, I think, start seeing a lot of small and large gestures by Nixon to try and improve his relationship with young people. He created a youth conference that they held at Estes Park in Colorado, which was termed Nixon’s Woodstock and he gathered over 1,000 young people from across the country to really…and put them into a task force.
And it was a three-day event that really tried to, you know, flush out some of the deeper risks and ways in which, you know, Nixon could at least make it look like he was reaching out to young people. I don’t think he ever believed he could really win them over but it felt like he had to make the try. I think he was surprised when some of the young people he hired like Ken Rietz and Bill Brock who was a senator in Tennessee really convinced Nixon that he could pull this off. I think that Nixon was actually surprised when it actually happened.
Jonathan Movroydis: You mentioned Bill Brock and Ken Rietz, their successes in Tennessee. Could you expand on that a little bit? Who were they and, you know, what were their ideas for voter outreach?
Seth Blumenthal: Right. So, Ken Rietz was a young up and comer who was working with Harry Trulivan [SP] and doing PR and political consulting and Nixon sent him down to work with Brock. And Brock put him in charge in many ways of the whole campaign but Rietz focused on the young voters. It was really a natural fit for Brock who was a youth candidate himself. He had come up through the Young Republicans in his young 30s became the first congressman in his district in Chattanooga from the Republican Party and over three decades.
So, he was a good fit for a young voter campaign. And Brock, his youth campaign stunned the country because he was running against Al Gore, Sr., a staunch anti-war activist and people assumed that young people would just go with Gore. And Brock was able to reach out to a conservative contingency of young people. He had 12,000 members of young voters for Brock and they had a great ground game. He actually said that he used union literature. So, he uses union strategies for organizing.
That’s an ironic twist and really was able to win the youth vote in Tennessee which at the time was still the 21-year-old vote and up but was still something that Brock was very proud of and I think was important as much for the ballot box but also for the ground game that young voters provide in campaigns. And that was sort of the thing that I think Brock was best able to transfer over to Nixon’s campaign was that, you know, young people might not always vote for you, you might not always win over the young voters, but they’re really good for campaigning.
Jonathan Movroydis: And what were the key issues that attracted young voters to Brock?
Seth Blumenthal: One thing that attracted a lot of young people was just an adherence to a sort of free-market philosophies mapped over onto politics. And that was the idea that one-party politics had not benefited them. And so, it was just a way to have sort of choice to have a Republican Party. Certainly, it did appeal to their conservatism on a lot of racial issues, but also with their sort of opposition to sort of permissive 1960s culture, there was sort of a religious appeal, that sort of square sheik notion, you know, of pushing back on those elements.
And so, those things made Brock and also his sort of youth and vision and the way he sort of sold the Republican Party for the first time I think for a lot of Republicans as the party of ideas, that they had new ideas, that the Democratic Parties were old and sort of dusty and that there were some new ideas coming out of the Republican Party about, you know, cutting taxes and, you know, talking about free trade and this sort of bland emphasis on prosperity that they could build on that. That those themes were really effective in opposition to Al Gore, who sort of leaned on old traditional techniques, stump speeches about Social Security, that weren’t necessarily as sexy as what Bill Brock was selling ironically.
Jonathan Movroydis: You say something key in your book, that Democrats look to young voters as a voting block and Nixon’s campaign began the important step of identifying and promoting a silent majority among youth. You had mentioned Fred Malek’s targeting strategies earlier, but can you explain the key difference here?
Seth Blumenthal: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, a lot of it had to do with resources. And at the foundation of this were a lot of business resources and connections that Nixon’s campaign had specifically with groups like Peter Dailey’s November Group which basically volunteered to run sort of a Madison Avenue-style targeted advertising campaign and really worked very closely with the young voters because young voters were so appealing.
I mean, most of the reason that Nixon developed or invested in young voters was because of its media appeal. And so, I think using those sort of corporate strategies and the resources that the Nixon campaign had in 1972, which no other campaign afterward had because of all the campaign finance reform after Watergate, you know, they really could spend whatever they wanted. On the other side McGovern, they were just so cash strapped and really focused more on just floating out issues that they thought would win over young people like just being against the war.
They didn’t think that you needed to really focus on the ground-level elements that Nixon was able to pull off. So, I think that was really the big distinction between how ironically while Nixon’s campaign was sort of, you know, associated with being sort of reactionary by some was really the more sort of forward-looking campaign strategy.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned the 26th Amendment pass in 1971 as an example of policy outreach to young voters. You had mentioned that sort of the initiator of that, in part, was the tragedy at Kent State, but were there any other policies that the Nixon administration deployed that were pretty attractive to younger voters?
Seth Blumenthal: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s surprising when you start looking for it, how often Nixon was talking about, “How is this gonna play with young people?” So, in more obvious places, like the environment, Nixon was really concerned with young people pushing against the industry in general and losing faith in the system. And so, you know, the Environmental Act, he talked all the time about how it was important to bring young people into it. The draft, he had a draft advisory board that included mostly young people. So, those were sort of the major issues.
But even in places that you might not expect, like his move to China, the ping-pong diplomacy, how he was talking about, you know, how young people would really be impressed with this. And he was always trying to get them to do the polling of college students on China because he knew it really went over a lot of the moderates, it was sort of his detente for moderate young people. So, I think there were a lot of places where, you know, Nixon really saw ways to squeeze as much political capital out of some of these issues, these youth issues, as possible.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned the money issue with McGovern in ’72. But bringing out the youth vote was, as you mention in your book…the passage of the 26th Amendment was somewhat of a political risk by President Nixon bringing all these new young voters into the fray that wouldn’t traditionally vote for a Republican president and might be attracted to an anti-war candidate like George McGovern. But why ultimately did Nixon decide to roll the dice and take this gamble?
Seth Blumenthal: Well, in many ways he didn’t have a choice. And he always actually said, you know, “Make sure it looks like we’re not trying,” right? So, he wanted to make people know that…he worried about the risk of looking like he cared. And so, in some ways, he did take a risk, but he mitigated it as much as he could. But it was also really thrust on him. I mean, he did ultimately have a signing ceremony for the 26th Amendment, but the amendment does not require the president’s signature.
So, it was gonna happen whether or not he supported it. He did sign the 1970 law, which was rejected by the Supreme Court, but he did so reluctantly. And I have quotes in here telling his advisors to slow it down and to stop it. But he thought that it was gonna be overturned and it was. So, in a lot of ways, he didn’t have much of a choice. And so, I think that explains a lot of… But I think once he realized that it was a reality, that’s when he said, you know, “We might as well just embrace it.”
And Rietz actually convinced Nixon in 1971 to have the signing ceremony and to hold it, you know, with a group of, you know, young people, 500 young people, that were in a singing and choir band that Nixon had his people scout it out first and they reported that they were okay and they said, you know, “None of them had long hair.” So, you know, he made sure right away, right from the get-go, that he was gonna go ahead and engage young voters but on his terms.
Jonathan Movroydis: And you’re right that he was effectively able to split the youth vote in 1972. How did that all pan out regarding young voters with Nixon’s race against McGovern in ’72?
Seth Blumenthal: How was he able to do it?
Jonathan Movroydis: How was able to, yeah, effectively split that vote?
Seth Blumenthal: Well, I mean, he did a lot better on campuses than he thought he was going to do or than that people predicted. So, that’s one thing because they did end up campaigning on campus as they sort of gained momentum. But for the most part, it was through getting out to vote. And I think one of the lessons from, you know… My story is that it’s not necessarily the majority, you know, that when we talk about the silent majority, they were just in some ways better at getting everybody out and really having a targeted robust youth campaign focused on registration and following through.
And in a lot of ways also, the Nixon campaign created a separate semi-autonomous young voters for the president which allowed young people volunteering to look at the campaign and see themselves in positions of authority. And so, it was really effective and gave even young people who weren’t quite committed to Nixon a sense that they had a stake in the election. And so, that was really an effective technique.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you expand on that a little bit? You had mentioned the Youth for Nixon. How did that operation work?
Seth Blumenthal: Right. So, the emphasis was on basically getting storefront offices opened. And so, functionally it was really to have a presence and they had these storefront offices in as many places as possible. They had them…in every state, there was at least one of these. In some places, they had just, you know, some in several towns even right next to each other. Another thing, I think, another emphasis on the campaign that was really effective that I mentioned before were the rallies. And so, the rallies were…they were traveling rallies and they’d go around into sort of suburban areas.
They were sort of Golden Oldies so it wasn’t necessarily cutting edge 1972 music. So, it was to sort of soften the edges of the youth revolt. And they were also sort of consciously integrated as far as, for example, the rally at the Republican National Convention in 1972. The star of that Sammy Davis Jr. And so in some ways, it was meant to again push back on the larger image but it also was a way to sort of reach out to young voters themselves and at the end of every concert, they would stand up and all sing in unison Nixon’s famous campaign song.
Jonathan Movroydis: You write that image became important to Nixon’s political operation beginning even before 1968. The campaign Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, later the White House Chief of Staff, wrote an important memo in which he states, “The candidate needs to move out of the dark ages and into the brave new world of the omnipresent eye.” What media strategies did Nixon begin deploying in 1968, ones that were particularly effective.
Seth Blumenthal: So, in 1968, you know, the focus in many ways was on, you know, presenting Nixon in a sort of a softer tone. And so, a lot of this was sort of superficial elements. I think, you know, one really important part that they seem to incorporate that I write about a lot was how important Nixon’s kids were. And so, photographing him with the kids, showing him more as a family man, those were really important elements of sort of softening and putting him out there in the public eye. You know, they were extremely framed images and in a lot of ways that reflected ways that, you know…and Nixon was reluctant to do it but ultimately saw after 1960 and, you know, losing to John F. Kennedy in a lot of ways, you know, the narrative after that was that Nixon didn’t play along with the sort of new image politics game.
And so, in 1968, there was that effort. And young voters played a role in that as well. Nixon had the Nixonettes which was a group of, you know, uniformed young women who would attend his rallies dressed in very sort of traditional sort of political guard with straw hats and a sash and skirts but still, you know, represent… For example, I have in my book a picture of the Nixonettes holding up a sign that said, “Nixon is groovy.” So, it was sort of, like it was really cornball. To me, looking back on it, the 1972 campaign was such a more genuine sort of organic representation of youth culture. It was much more framed in 1968.
Jonathan Movroydis: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that. How did it change? How did the imagery change in 1972 for the purpose of appealing to younger voters?
Seth Blumenthal: Right. I mean, like I said, with the rallies that was one way to do it. But I think it was also if you look sort of stylistically at some of the imagery, you can see that it played to some of the more sort of 70s sensibility sort of that they had sort of a tripped out, you know, Young Voters for the President, YVP insignia. I have pictures in the book of a Nixon car. And so, three young Nixonettes spray painted, you know, “Nixon’s our man. Nixon now,” you know, the songs, the advertising campaign. I mean, I have a little bit where I compare it to the Pepsi ads for the Pepsi generation. It was sort of moved into that type of an imagery that really sort of, for some young people, made Nixon hip.
Jonathan Movroydis: George McGovern. Do you think the luster for his candidacy, his anti-war candidacy, started to wear off by 1972 as the war was coming to an end?
Seth Blumenthal: Yeah. Well, I mean, the problem for McGovern as far as the Vietnam War was concerned was that he was more or less as far as when he got a start one, you know, he had some interesting ideas certainly and they were some radical ideas for the time and even for today. And I think that he, you know, was a fascinating candidate but for the most part I think, you know, he has rightfully so been simplified as more or less a one-issue candidate and that was sort of anti-war. And he embraced that.
You know, his campaign’s mantra was right from the start that he was opposed to the war right from the start. And so, that was the emphasis of his youth campaign. So, as Nixon began to unwind the war and the draft, you began to see ways in which it undermined, you know, McGovern’s assault on Nixon and undermined his appeal to youth. And the other thing, of course, is that the young voters in McGovern’s campaign was a divisive force.
McGovern was trying to keep together a coalition of young anti-war protesters and blue-collar, very patriotic working class, you know, union voters and this proved to be really problematic. McGovern’s decision to drop Eagleton as the story came out that he had received electric shock therapy for his vice presidential candidate and moved to Sargent Shriver was one that I think left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of young liberals who began to see McGovern not as an outsider but just another politician.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Seth Blumenthal, historian and senior lecturer at Boston University. Our topic was how President Nixon built a coalition and developed policies to attract younger voters. Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.