Lessons From the 1964 Republican Convention: Declaring War on the Establishment

Donald Trump’s candidacy wasn’t the first time the Republican Party was split by an outsider declaring war on the establishment elite.

This series was produced by Matt Spolar, in partnership with Politico.

For teachers
  • Producer: Matthew Spolar
  • Editor: Brian Kamerzel
  • Associate Producer: Victor Couto

For Educators


This six-minute video introduces students to the “civil war” between the Republican Party’s moderates and conservatives that led to one of the most raucous conventions in American political history. After disciplined and combative conservative forces successfully nominated Senator Barry Goldwater, the party’s moderates sabotaged their own nominee at the convention, virtually ensuring President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in November. Vividly illustrating both the electoral high-water mark of American liberalism, as well as the birth of modern conservatism, the video is useful for lessons covering the 1964 election, the rise of the conservative movement, or the political context of the Great Society.

Background reading

The 1964 presidential campaign initiated several trends that carried beyond that election. The race between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater produced a significant switch in both Northern and Southern party loyalties. The results pushed Democrats to the left and created the modern conservative G.O.P. that took a significant step to the right with Goldwater. Both campaigns made polished, vicious negative advertising the campaign tool of first resort and showed the collective power of ideologically driven, broad-based grassroots organizers and small donors.

During his first months in the White House, Lyndon Johnson channeled the wave of emotion that swept over the nation in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination. The former Senate majority leader’s legislative skills and dominant style quickly produced the Civil Rights Act, a vision for a war on poverty, plus drawing-board proposals for many other expansions of the federal government’s role.

The war on the Republican side wasn’t against poverty but rather the liberal Republican “Eastern establishment” that had been competing with the Midwestern and Sun Belt right wing for some time. Goldwater’s plain-spoken, small-government rhetoric whipped up the conservative faithful into a frenzied state. While winning the nomination, Goldwater dispatched heavyweights such as New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, among others. The San Francisco Republican National Convention in July 1964 thus became a harbinger for both the short team defeat of the G.O.P. and the long-term creation of a conservative modern Republican Party.

Lesson Plan 1: 1964 Republican Convention – Chaos and Conservatism

Students will learn how Senator Barry Goldwater’s nomination in 1964 led to a disastrous Republican convention and a Democratic landslide in November, but not without giving birth to the conservative movement that has come to dominate today’s Republican Party.


Students will:

  • Analyze and assess the causes and consequences of the division within the Republican Party’s conservative and moderate wings.
  • Summarize, compare and contrast, and draw logical inferences from primary source documents regarding the 1964 Republican Party presidential nominating convention and general election.
  • Collaborate with peers in pairs and/or small groups to discuss, analyze, and assess text and visual primary source documents.
  • Develop a position and present a viewpoint based on historical evidence.
Essential questions
  • To what extent did the presidential election of 1964 reflect and reveal the deep ideological differences within the Republican Party?
  • To what extent did the campaign rhetoric by conservative and liberal party leaders help or hinder the prospect for Republican victory in the 1964 presidential election?
  • To what extent did the presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 ignite and influence the subsequent development of conservative dominance in the Republican Party?
  • Despite his landslide loss in the presidential election, to what extent did Barry Goldwater bring the “far right” political ideas and positions to the mainstream within the Republican Party?
Additional resources
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.4:Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.9:Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2:Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.5.9-12.Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D4.1.6-8.Construct arguments using claims and evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging the strengths and limitations of the arguments.
    • D3.1.6-8.Gather relevant information from multiple sources while using the origin, authority, structure, context, and corroborative value of the sources to guide the selection.
    • D1.4.9-12.Explain how supporting questions contribute to an inquiry and how, through engaging source work, new compelling and supporting questions emerge.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 8.9: The Great Society

      Skill 1.B: Explain a historical process.

      Theme 5: Politics and Power (PCE)

  • AP Government and Politics
    • Unit 5: Political ParticipationTopic 5.3: Political Parties
      Topic 5.8: Electing a President
      Topic 5.9: Congressional Elections
      Topic 5.10: Modern Campaigns