Opinion: Return of the 'Daisy' ad can't revive politics of the 1960s

The 'Daisy girl' reflects on famous ad
The 'Daisy girl' reflects on famous ad

    JUST WATCHED

    The 'Daisy girl' reflects on famous ad

MUST WATCH

The 'Daisy girl' reflects on famous ad 04:44

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: The "Daisy" ad was considered to be one of the most powerful television spots ever made
  • The Clinton campaign's "Daisy" ad is playing in a very different political environment than the original, writes Zelizer

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." He is the co-host of the podcast, "Politics & Polls." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)As part of her closing argument, Hillary Clinton has released an ad that will bring back memories for baby boomers who lived through the tumultuous 1960s. The television spot begins with the actress Monique Luiz, who played the girl in Lyndon Johnson's famous "Daisy" ad in 1964.

Julian Zelizer
Luiz says, "This was me in 1964. The fear of nuclear war that we had as children, I never thought our children would ever have to deal with that again. And to see that coming forward in this election is really scary." The rest of the ad features Trump making provocative statements about possibly using nuclear weapons, as well as national security officials like former National Security Agency and CIA Director Michael Hayden warning about the dangers of having Trump in office. "Bomb the s—t out of them," we hear Trump saying at the end of the ad.
For those who don't remember, the "Daisy" ad was considered to be one of the most powerful television spots ever made.
    President Lyndon Johnson was running for re-election against Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. A major theme of the Johnson campaign was that Goldwater was too much of an extremist to be president.
    Johnson also cited statements that Goldwater made about his willingness to use low-level nuclear weapons in Vietnam to warn voters that he would bring the country into a nuclear war. Johnson and the Democrats depicted Goldwater as unstable and unpredictable.
    With Democrats worried that there would be a backlash against Johnson's support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the South, Johnson focused on stirring a "frontlash" that would persuade Republicans to switch parties because of the erratic nature of their candidate.
    To make this point, the Daisy ad featured a little girl counting the petals off a flower, counting from 1 to 10 until her voice is interrupted by an official government voice, counting down from 10 to 1 until viewers see a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion in her eyeball.
    "These are the stakes — to make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die," viewers heard Johnson say in a voice-over. Another male voice then says, "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."
    Republicans complained the ad hit below the belt. It was dirty politics. The ad, said Arizona Sen. John Rhodes, showed Democrats were "callously playing on the fears of the American people by deliberately trying to picture Sen. Barry Goldwater as a man who would get this country into nuclear war." Democrats pulled the ad, but just playing it once did the trick. The media covered the ad, discussed the ad, and the message that Goldwater was dangerous got through. The ad "hung the nuclear noose around Goldwater and finished him off," noted presidential speechwriter and adviser Bill Moyers.
    Johnson enjoyed a landslide victory in 1964 in one of the most consequential elections in American history. With over 61% of the popular vote, Johnson won 486 Electoral College votes to Goldwater's 52, while Democrats came out of the election with 295 seats in the House and 68 seats in the Senate. The conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans that had held up civil rights, Medicare and every other progressive bill diminished in power as a result of the election as liberal Democrats flourished.

    Birth of the 'Great Society'

    After the election, Johnson was able to work with a Congress that was willing to pass a massive legislative agenda that included Medicare and Medicaid, federal assistance to higher, secondary and elementary education, voting rights, immigration reform and much more. The election allowed for the passage of the Great Society.
    Yet it is unlikely this election will have the same effect as 1964. Although there were a few days when some experts were talking about the possibility of a landslide victory for the Democrats, the polls suggest the race remains pretty tight. Some statisticians expect that even if he loses, Trump's floor could be about 40% and Republicans are very likely to keep at least one chamber of Congress. Given today's partisan environment, the result will be a mess. It is already clear that if Clinton is in the White House and Republicans control at least one chamber of Congress, there will be a blitz of investigations that could make Bill Clinton's experience seem like kids play.
    With the new Daisy ad in the air, it's worth considering what makes these campaigns so different. Why is it so much more difficult to achieve the kind of landslide that we saw in 1964? The most important factor is that the electorate is just much more polarized today than it was in 1964.
    Over the past couple of decades, as Princeton's Sam Wang (who is my co-host for "Politics & Polls") pointed out in The New York Times, there are fewer voters who are willing to switch parties. Voters are unwilling to vote for the opposition regardless of how much they dislike the person at the top of their own ticket. There are a number of reasons this has happened, from the demographic sorting of voters to the impact of our campaign finance system, but the results are clear. More and more Americans live in distinct partisan worlds and are unwilling to venture into new territory.
    Johnson and Democratic congressional candidates were able to cut significantly into Republican support in states like Illinois. In Kansas, Johnson won with 54.1% of the vote, the first time the state had not gone to a Republican since 1936. Goldwater was able to win support in what was then the heavily Democratic Deep South, but we are unlikely to see those kinds of shifts today.

    Trump is no Goldwater

    The fact that the electorate is so polarized has created space for a candidate like Donald Trump, despite his outlandish behavior and often extreme rhetoric on issues like immigration, to survive, indeed to thrive. Republicans are so loyal to their party that there is greater willingness to tolerate someone who seems like such an outlier. The recent email controversy with FBI Director James Comey's letter is likely to cement Republican antipathy toward the Democratic candidate and energize conservative voters to stay firm in their opposition to her.
    While Goldwater was actually too far to the right for his party in 1964, the Republican Party has changed dramatically since. Trump's views on immigration, for instance, are rooted in forces that have pushed the party toward more hard-line positions since the 1990s.
    Nor is Hillary Clinton like Lyndon Johnson. In early 1964, Johnson was an extremely popular president (with approval ratings reaching nearly 79%) who had taken over after the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy. Johnson made clear his unabashed commitment to many signature liberal causes, such as health care for the elderly, voting rights, federal assistance to education, a war on poverty and much more.
    Johnson also ran his campaign at a moment when liberal grassroots activism, led by the civil rights movement and organized labor, generated enthusiasm and support for the Democratic ticket. They also quelled doubts that existed about the Texas-born president's true commitment to civil rights.
    Today, Clinton does not enjoy that kind of standing even with her own supporters. She has suffered from very low approval ratings. Clinton has been reluctant to move out front on many key issues and has a record of trying to find the perfect center on key questions like trade and race relations, leading to doubts among many liberal activists. Centrist voters tend to have a weaker understanding of Clinton's stance on the issues. Many will vote for her, but much of that support is based on her experience rather than vision, and much of it is based on the fact that she is not Trump.
    Moreover, Clinton has been the victim of sexism that Johnson never faced. There is ample evidence of how she has had to undergo all sorts of treatment in the campaign, mostly raised by Trump, about her "stamina" and her physical looks that Johnson never had to deal with.

    What's Trump stand for?

    Finally, there is Trump's own political brand. After the 1964 election, Johnson was able to characterize the vote as a defeat for right-wing conservatism. Goldwater was part of a growing body of conservative Republicans who believed their party had to stand for principles and that political risks were worth taking to move forward with the conservative agenda.
    When the election ended, many observers naturally believed liberalism had defeated conservatism. Many Republicans bolted from Goldwater's legacy and were willing to work with Democrats to appear more centrist.
    Follow CNN Opinion

    Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    But does Trump really stand for anything? The campaign has been so eclectic and devoid of specific positions, and there are so many doubts that he really believes what he is saying, that Clinton would have more trouble defining his defeat as a vote against conservatism -- or indeed any kind of political vision. A Trump defeat would be seen as a defeat of Trump rather than of any set of principles (other, of course, than his hard-line views on immigration and Muslims).
    So for all these reasons the new Daisy ad is playing in a very different political environment than the one in which Johnson defeated Goldwater. When the dust settles from this contentious and bitter election, we are much more likely to find the nation in a period of even greater gridlock and discord than we've seen in the past eight years.