FIFTY YEARS AGO this week, Robert Kennedy won the Democratic presidential primary in Indiana — and a political myth, both about the man, but also the way Democrats win national elections, was born.
Kennedy had thrown his hat in the ring for the Democratic nomination for president in mid-March of 1968. His entry in the race, days after Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy had narrowly lost the New Hampshire primary to President Lyndon Johnson, pushed the president to end his bid for reelection. Over the next seven weeks, Kennedy aggressively campaigned to be his party’s standard-bearer. He mercilessly attacked Johnson, blaming him directly for the country’s growing divisions. And, as the myth-makers would later claim, directly challenged white voters about the moral urgency of civil rights — and yet still won their support.
“Kennedy’s Indiana Victory Proves His Appeal Defuses Backlash Voting,” wrote the reporting team of Rowland Evans and Bob Novak. The New York Times said he had run well in the white working-class wards that had voted for George Wallace during the Democratic primary in 1964. “Some of these voters,” wrote the Times, “indicated to reporters that although Mr. Kennedy had the Negro vote they looked upon him also as a tough-minded Irishman with whom they could identify.” Kennedy was, said the Village Voice, “the last liberal politician who could communicate with working class America” and create a blue-black coalition of white blue-collar and African-American voters.
In reality, reporters saw a mirage — one that distorted Kennedy’s legacy and deemphasized the toxic role that racism actually played in 1968 and continues to play today. Kennedy won just 30 percent of the white vote in Indiana — and largely among Catholic voters who had pulled the lever for his brother eight years earlier.
Kennedy fared particularly badly in places that abutted predominately African-American neighborhoods. For example, in Lake County, which included the gritty industrial city of Gary — and largely segregated white and black communities — McCarthy defeated him soundly. The key to Kennedy’s victory was his strong support among black voters — which represented nearly half of his backing in the state. A similar phenomenon would play out later in the Oregon and California primaries. Indeed, Oregon was the first election that a Kennedy ever lost and it happened, in part, because as one of his advisers ruefully noted, the state didn’t have any ghettos. In California, the state’s black and Hispanic voters would narrowly put him over the top, but as was the case in Indiana and Oregon, McCarthy fared far better among white suburban voters.
Kennedy’s close identification with black voters — and the problems that caused him with white voters — was not lost on the candidate. “I’m the Negro candidate,” he told his liberal aides. “I have to tell white people I care about what they care about.”
Indeed, while many today remember the inspired remarks he gave in Indianapolis before a predominately black crowd, on the night of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Kennedy’s message in Indiana was a bit more nuanced. He began calling himself the candidate of “law and order” and boasted that he’d been the “chief law enforcement officer” in the country when he served as attorney general under his brother.
Kennedy was not wrong to focus on crime. By the spring of 1968, it was the most important domestic issue facing the country. But Kennedy’s appeals were sometimes a bit more loaded. He talked about the importance of “get(ting) away from the welfare system, the handout system, and the idea of the dole.” In his only debate with McCarthy, he falsely accused his opponent of wanting to move hundreds of thousands of blacks to predominately white Orange County. It’s the kind of line that one might expect from a politician intent on playing the race card to win over white voters.
Indeed, one of the more underappreciated aspects of Kennedy’s candidacy is that the more voters got to see the candidate, the less they liked him. In mid-April, polls showed Kennedy scoring 50 percent of the vote in Indiana. On Election Day, he won 42 percent — a result that those inside of his campaign considered a “disappointment.” Early internal campaign polling had Kennedy beating McCarthy by double digits in California. In the end, he won the state by 4 points. In addition, national polling showed him running third among Democrats — behind both Humphrey and McCarthy; and a May Harris poll indicated that two-thirds of the country saw him as an opportunist — a 21-point increase from just 6 months earlier.
Yet, the myth of Kennedy’s so-called black-blue coalition endures. Just this past March, the New York Times ran an op-ed arguing that Kennedy’s 82-day campaign in 1968 was one of “liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism” and boasted that he “was able to forge a powerful coalition of working-class whites and blacks . . . at a time when whites were far more bigoted than they are today.”
In reality, it was precisely Kennedy’s identification with black voters that hurt him among some whites. In polling done in California, the campaign found that the candidate’s greatest vulnerability with white voters is that they saw him as, in his own words, “the Negro candidate.”
Kennedy’s ’68 campaign, rather than offering an inspiring model for bringing white and black voters together, would instead provide a depressing preview of 50 years of racial politics in America. Most white voters supported civil rights legislation, but when the practical impact of these laws began to infringe on their privileges, they pushed back. As schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces were integrated, whites responded with palpable fear that advances for blacks meant less for them — and voted accordingly. Politics came to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which increasing government services and resources for one group meant taking it away from someone else. This became an effective fear-based message utilized by generations of Republican politicians, and it played out in almost identical terms during the 2016 campaign.
This is not to say that every white voter has or will respond the same way to a candidate preaching a message of inclusion and integration. Indeed, the Democrats winning presidential coalitions before 2016 were a combination of voters of color, white liberals, and yes, some working-class whites. It’s a bloc of voters that can be reassembled again. But make no mistake: it will compete against a message of racial competition and separation that, unfortunately, remains as relevant to our politics today as it was 50 years ago in Indiana.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.