December 1, 2005

December 1, 2005 | Commentary on

Barry Goldwater: The Most Consequential Loser

Remarks at

The Conservative Movement: Its Past, Present and Future

"Barry Goldwater: The Most Consequential Loser"

Lee Edwards, Ph.D.
Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought
The Heritage Foundation

Princeton University, December 1-3, 2005

Co-sponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs 


Barry Goldwater was the most consequential loser in modern presidential politics. His conservative candidacy forty-one years ago has had a more enduring impact on our politics and our nation than the losing candidates usually mentioned in the history and political science texts--Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Al Smith in 1928, George Wallace in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, and Ross Perot in 1988.

This judgment might be challenged by some, given thatGoldwater received less than 39 percent of the popular vote and carried only six states totaling 52 electoral votes in his 1964 campaign for the presidency. Most political observers of the day agreed with James B. Reston of the New York Times that Goldwater "not only lost the presidential election ... but the conservative cause as well." A few demurred, including the political historian Theodore White, who wrote, "One cannot dismiss Goldwater as a man without meaning in American history. Again and again in American history it has happened that the losers of the presidency contributed almost as much to the permanent tone and dialogue of politics as did the winners." Even White could not foresee just how meaningful the Goldwater candidacy would be.

Because of Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party became the Conservative Party and then the majority party in America. Today, Republicans control the White House, the Congress, more than half of the governorships, and approximately half of the state legislators. As William A. Rusher recently wrote: "Today practically all Republican candidates proclaim their conservatism, and almost all conservative leaders vow their allegiance to the Republican Party. It has been a remarkably fruitful union.

The union was made possible by the impact of the Goldwater candidacy on the five essential elements of politics--money, organization, candidates, issues, and the media.

With his nationwide grassroots appeal, Goldwater enabled the GOP through direct mail and television to broaden its financial base by a factor of 30 to 1. In 1960 there were between 40,000 and 50,000 contributors to the Nixon campaign. In 1964, the number of individual contributors was estimated at nearly 700,000. Goldwater gave the Republican Party broad-based financial independence for the first time in its history.

Politics is people, and thousands of young conservatives entered and stayed in politics because of Barry Goldwater's run for the presidency. Today they sit in Congress, manage campaigns, conduct national polls, head think tanks, edit magazines, and host talk shows. The Democratic Party was always better at organizing than the Republican Party because it could call upon organized labor for its manpower. But in 1964, nearly 4 million people volunteered and worked in the Goldwater campaign--twice as many as worked for President Lyndon B. Johnson. In the June Republican primary in California, for example, an estimated 50,000 volunteers turned out for Goldwater, prompting Rockefeller's outmanned campaign manager to remark, "They kept coming at us like the Chinese Army."

Goldwater was the first ideological presidential candidate. Ideas mattered most to him--he would not pander to the people for their votes. He prepared the way for idea-driven candidates like Democrat George McGovern in 1972 and Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980. Indeed, without candidate Goldwater there would have been no President Reagan for it was Goldwater who gave Reagan the opportunity in the last week of the 1964 campaign to deliver his famous "A Time for Choosing" TV address. That address made Reagan a national political star overnight and led to his running for and being elected governor of California.

Goldwater's structured campaigning, limiting his appearances to two or three major speeches a day in places "where the votes are," was adopted by presidential winners Ronald Reagan and George Bush the elder. Goldwater, who came from a state with only five electoral votes, also set a precedent for outsider presidential candidates like McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. 

Goldwater insisted on addressing the issues that have dominated the national debate for the past four decades. They included Social Security, which Goldwater argued was actuarially unsound but could be strengthened by a voluntary option for younger people. Federal subsidies: they should be reduced and eliminated where possible. Privatization: Government-owned properties should be sold to the private sector, government services should be contracted out to private companies. Law and order: the rights of victims should take precedence over the rights of criminals. Morality in government: the president and all in public office should avoid scandal and not misuse their office for personal gain. The Constitution: the president should appoint to the federal bench and especially the Supreme Court jurists who will respect not rewrite the Constitution. Communism: why not victory?

With regard to the media, the success of the Democrats' attack ads--the Daisy, the Ice Cream and the Social Security TV spots--convinced future presidential aspirants that the most effective advertising was negative advertising. On the other hand, Goldwater's half-hour TV programs were copied three decades later by Ross Perot in his infomercials.

In the fall of 1994, a USA Today-CNN Gallup poll found that 64 percent of Americans agreed with the Republicans' Contract with America. The people wanted smaller government, lower taxes and spending, tougher anti-crime measures and less Washington meddling in their lives. Every one of these ideas was first proposed by Barry Goldwater in his 1964 campaign--he was simply thirty years too early.

Without AuH2O in '64, the Republican Party would have continued to be dominated by its Eastern liberal wing and to remain a regional minority party. There would have been no electoral breakthrough in the South, no development of a two-party system in the South, no emerging Republican majority.

Barry Goldwater was a prophet, an Old Testament Jeremiah, who sternly warned the people to repent of their wasteful ways or reap a whirlwind of debt and deficits. He was a pioneer who led the Republican Party out of the barren East and into a verdant South and West where milk and honey and victory awaited them. He was, in George Will's words, "a man who lost forty-four states but won the future."

He sparked the conservative revolution in America, but he was an unusual revolutionary--the grandson of a Jewish peddler, a college dropout, a master mechanic and ham radio operator, a gifted photographer, an intrepid pilot, a man who never smoked a cigarette or drank a cup of coffee but kept a bottle of Old Crow in the refrigerator of his Senate office for after-five sipping. 

His 1964 candidacy for president marked the beginning of a tectonic shift in American politics--from East to West, from the cities to the suburbs, from big government to limited government, from containment to liberation, from liberal to conservative--that shapes the nation to this day.

Lee Edwards, Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), is the author of many books, including the just-published " To Preserve and Protect: The Life of Edwin Meese III."

About the Author

Lee Edwards, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics

Remarks at "The Conservative Movement: Its Past, Present and Future"