The Frontlash

LBJ’s hope that the election could achieve a realignment by winning over the “frontlash” voters—Republicans disaffected by Goldwater’s stances on civil rights and nuclear issues—was the President’s key political aim in the campaign. He used polls to focus on the concept throughout the summer, as in this early August clip with advisor Eddie Weisl.

President Johnson: Now get this: this is the most important point that I have pointed up.

They talk about all the South quitting me, and they talk about everybody quitting me. Well, I get 78 and he [Goldwater] gets 13.

Eddie Weisl: Where?

President Johnson: In the nation. From the Democrats.

Weisl: Is that the Roper poll?

President Johnson: Yes, sir.

Weisl: You’re still quoting that.

President Johnson: Yes. Coming out Monday, in Life. Now, let me make my point. I don’t make it too . . .

The Democrats in the nation vote 78 percent of them are for Johnson. Now, those that are against him, we call that a backlash. That’s a Polish backlash.

Weisl: Yes.

President Johnson: That’s a Southern backlash. Because of civil rights. Well, it’s 13 percent of them [that] quit me on that account.

Goldwater, among the Republicans, gets 50 percent. And Johnson gets 27. So the backlash to him is 27 percent, more than twice as much as the Democratic backlash. Yet you never read any columns or any editorials or anybody pointing up the Republican backlash.

And I told Roper that yesterday, and told Lou Harris, and they said, “That’s a hell of an interesting point.”

I said, “Well, you just take the parties, now. Here’s the Democrats. You say the Democratic candidate’s going to lose a hell of a lot of Democrats. Well, how many? Well, 13 percent.”

“Well, you’ve got the Republican candidate; how many Republicans [is] he going to lose? Twenty-seven percent—twice as many.”

“So you better say about the Republican backlash—all these extreme statements, and Ku Klux Klan, and all this other stuff.”

That’s pretty interesting, isn’t it?

Weisl: Sure it is.


By the Democratic convention in late August, Johnson had a more felicitous term to describe the concept—the “frontlash.” In this clip, the President pressed aide Dick Nelson for the latest polls, and passed them onto Bill Moyers with an instruction to “stampede that convention” with talk of the frontlash.

President Johnson: Dick, I want you to get the best figures on the last poll—the frontlash and the backlash—with the last five of them, that you can. I know you’ve got a good one on Roper. I know you’ve got a good one on Gallup. I know you’ve got a good one on Harris. I know you—then I would think there are two or three big states like New York.

And call Bill Moyer[s] and tell him to make copies of them and distribute them to all the networks. Try to get some of our people like [John] Connally and the others to point out, then, what the polls show on the frontlash. Use nothing but the word frontlash; quit talking about backlash.

Tell him to really stampede that convention with frontlashes today.

Dick Nelson: All right.

President Johnson: Try to drown it out.

[Break; Moyers comes to the line.]

President Johnson: Try to get a half dozen of our people talking about frontlash.

Bill Moyers: All right, sir.

President Johnson: “The great frontlash.”

We ought to get some of our folks from New York, and we ought to . . . If I were you, I’d go talk to Bobby Kennedy and show him what the polls say and see if he won’t make some comment on the frontlash, how the Republicans are quitting.

Moyers: All right, sir.

President Johnson: I can’t do it. See if anybody else that’s got any press around him.

Moyers: All right, sir.

President Johnson: Let’s bury ‘em in frontlash today.


President Johnson: And the frontlash is liberals, independents, moderate Republicans. It shows he’s [Goldwater] only getting one independent out of four, whereas Nixon got two. It shows Nixon got 92 percent of the Republicans; he’s only got 60 [percent]. Roper only gives him 50 [percent]. Gives us 27 [percent], and him 50 [percent].

Moyers: All right, sir.

President Johnson: So he’s only got—he’s got two out of three Republicans, whereas Nixon had nine out of ten.

Moyers: All right, sir.

President Johnson: Now, we’ve got to sell that every place we can. That ought to be our one propaganda thing today.

Moyers: All right.


In this call with aide Dick Nelson from early September, the President recounts his efforts to have the Gallup and Roper pollsters themselves boost press attention to the idea.

Dick Nelson: They’re going to play up the frontlash, and they were delighted that you called on the press and the pollsters to bring this out. They were wanting a way to do it.

President Johnson: Call Gerry Seigel, now, and just say, “We don’t want this goddamn thing buried, that they’ve been burying the frontlash, and they’re saying the people that passed civil rights have ruined the country.”

And tell him that I’m really trying to get the frontlash out there where people can read it, and please help us not to get the damn thing buried.


Recognizing the frontlash potential, however, and articulating a program for achieving LBJ’s goal were two different things, as Chapter Five of the book explains. The clip below, with aide Bill Moyers, illustrates the President’s difficulty in spelling out a positive economic program that would appeal to “frontlash” voters.

President Johnson: [The speech should stress that] we have a right to wish what we want to, think what we want to, worship where we want to, sleep where we want to. Everything like . . . the basic fundamentals that—that Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Constitution thing, wrapped up in one paragraph.

Do you remember the paragraph I’m talking about?

Bill Moyers: Yes, sir. I sure do.

President Johnson: But I want it elaborated on a little bit—“A mind to be trained, a child’s mind to be trained. A church to pray in. A home to sleep in. A job to work in.”

Moyers: All right.

President Johnson: Let’s get education, religion, free speech, free press—“read what he pleases”—that will round him out as a well-balanced, tolerant, understanding individual.

Moyers: All right.

President Johnson: Instead of one of these kooks.

Moyers: OK.

President Johnson: [chuckling] Do you follow me there, now?

Moyers: Gotcha.

President Johnson: I want that one paragraph so that I can have all the Johnson philosophy.

He [Reuther] said, “Now, you’ve got to speak some on poverty. You’ve got to speak some on education. You’ve got to speak some on Medicare.” Somebody’s told him it’s going to be a high level speech. And he wants it a party hack speech.

I said, “Well, I’m going to refer to all of them.” I want it in one paragraph—my philosophy. So that when you quote what I had in that Southwest Quarterly [article]—“I’m a free man, an American, and a senator, in that order, and so forth.” Do you remember?

Moyers: Right.

President Johnson: I want something that you can quote like this the rest of our lives. You can put it up in the preface of your book. “I see a . . . I have a vision . . . dash . . . a vision of a land where a child can [pauses for nine seconds] have a home to live in.”

[quickly] And then repeat what I just said to you.

Moyers: OK.

President Johnson: “Can read what he wants to, and can wish what he wants to, and can dream what he wants to.” Put in the words, “I have a vision.” Let’s get a little bit of this holy-rolly populist stuff. [voice rising] “I have a vision of a land where every child [pauses] can have training to fit his abilities, a home to protect him from the elements, a church to kneel in.”

Throw at least two biblical quotations in, that are very simple, that every one of them have heard—these working [men], these auto mechanics.

Moyers: All right.

President Johnson: It’s what you Baptists just pour to them all the time.

Moyers: [chuckling] All right.

President Johnson: Make it simple; don’t give me one of these long ones.

Moyers: Right.

President Johnson: Just go back and get me one of the commandments. These Baptists preachers—don’t get on that adultery one. Get some of these, “Thou shalt not [pauses] lie on thy brother.” [Chuckles.]

Moyers: All right. OK.

President Johnson: OK.

Temporarily winning over the “frontlash” vote nonetheless remained a central goal of the campaign—perhaps most clearly in the second ad in the video below, which directly targeted disaffected Republicans.


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