In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was contesting a presidential race for re-election to the USA’s highest office. With the far-right libertarian Barry Goldwater standing against him as the Republican Party candidate, Johnson’s campaign went to drastic measures to ensure his victory, harnessing the new innovative technology of television. In what is commonly referred to as a revolutionary political attack ad, Johnson’s team aired the notorious “Daisy” ad which stated that voting for Goldwater would culminate in nuclear warfare – contributing to what ex-President Eisenhower described as a campaign “more personal than any I have ever known.” Here is the story of the advertisement, its impact, and its legacy on today’s political environment.
Barry Goldwater was the favourite for the Republican nomination in the 1964 Republican primaries. In his popular 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative, he espoused many right-wing ideas desirable to Southerners which had garnered him sizable popularity.
Confident of victory ahead of the nominating convention, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee looked forward to contesting with John F. Kennedy. Kennedy and Goldwater had become allies in the near decade-long stint they had shared in the Senate. Goldwater had proposed a series of debates with Kennedy in the style of the famous 1858 Douglas-Lincoln debates which could utilise the wit and oral tenacity of Goldwater, who at the time was “one of the most sought-after speakers on the GOP circuit” in the words of John C. Skipper.
After all, debates could be vital as proved by JFK’s win over Richard Nixon in 1960, partly due to his presentation in the 1960 presidential debate; Goldwater and Johnson would have no debates in 1964.
Yet it was never to be with Kennedy being assassinated in November 1963 in what Goldwater in his memoirs, With No Apologies, “a great personal loss,” after which he considered withdrawing for nomination.
Goldwater nonetheless went ahead and won the nomination in 1964, securing well over 50% of votes from delegates. He chose William E. Miller as his running mate, according to Time seemingly just for the reason that he “drives Lyndon Johnson nuts.”
His approach was immediate from his nomination, where he infamously commented:
“I would remind you that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice.”
The Road to “Daisy”
It is true that “Daisy” was not the first political attack ad. In 1952, television was used for the first time as a political stunt when Eisenhower’s ads implied corruption within the federal government whilst in 1960 a JFK campaign highlighted Eisenhower’s remarks of “I don’t remember” to any significant policies of his Vice-President Richard Nixon.
The Johnson team put $3 million aside for political advertising, an amount equivalent to about $26 million as of 2023. The New York Times noted how network television alone cost $7 million more in 1964 than in 1960.
Inspiration for “Daisy” came from Goldwater’s many hawkish comments on American foreign policy.
For example, in 1963, Goldwater was one of just 19 Senators to vote against ratification of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Subsequently signed into law, the move made Barry stand out as an extremist on the political right and made him vulnerable to attack. Barry’s mixed messaging and inability to totally rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam put the fear into many people. The then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara referred to his comments, especially in regard to his criticism of long-range missiles, as “damaging the national security.”
The premise of the “Daisy” ad was to bottle the public’s fear and anxieties over the war in Vietnam. When matching the Cold War tensions with Goldwater’s perceived trigger-happy, loose cannon style, Johnson was able to try to paint a picture of his opponent as an “apostle of war,” in the words of The Complete Book of US Presidents author William DeGregorio.
The ad was produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach, a giant of the advertising industry best known for its ads for Volkswagen. The ad they created played into viewers’ emotions, mixing it with the inherent fear the public would have felt at a time of Cold War enmity. As Bill Bernach remarked: “Playing it safe can be the most dangerous thing in the world because you’re presenting people with an idea they’ve seen before, and you won’t have an impact.”
Johnson’s press secretary Bill Moyers was the one to approve the ad’s airing, a decision that led Goldwater to hold a rare grudge.
After finding success with the “Daisy” ad, Johnson’s campaign tried out a series of other attack ads in what Lee Edwards – author of Goldwater: The Man Who Made A Revolution – has called “an all-out media attack.”Follow our link to buy the book: Goldwater: The Man Who Made A Revolution
The most famous of these precursor attack ads featured a minute of footage showing a girl licking ice cream. Over the video footage, a narrator noted how people “used to explode atomic bombs in the air,” before hinting that chemical elements may contaminate children through the food supply. In a direct jab at Barry Goldwater, who voted against the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the advert comments that politicians
“signed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and then the radioactive poison started to go away. But now there’s a man who wants to be president of the United States, and he doesn’t like this treaty. He fought against it. He even voted against it. He wants to go on testing more bombs. His name is Barry Goldwater, and if he’s elected, they might start testing all over again.”
An ad titled “Confessions From A Republican” was another popular was another popular piece, which sought to encapsulate the feeling of moderate Republicans towards Goldwater. The man admits he has only voted Republican and comes from a Republican family. Despite voting for Eisenhower and Nixon, Goldwater is described by the man as “a very different kind of a man” who “scares me.” For four minutes, he muses about Goldwater’s conflicting ideals, support from the KKK, and wishes he had been a delegate to vote for a different candidate, and adds, “If you unite behind a man you don’t believe in, it’s a lie.”
He closes the ad with the line:
“I think my party made a bad mistake…and I’m going to have to vote against that bad mistake in November.”
Politico notes how another controversial ad was produced by never aired, this one far more personal, vicious, and cutting – especially through modern eyes. In this ad, the Johnson campaign quoted Robert Creel, Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, who endorsed Goldwater whilst railing against “n*ggerism, Catholicism, [and] Judaism.” This ad leaned into the Arizonian’s racist reputation, having voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In all, 50% of the ads utilised in ‘64 – an unprecedented height – were negative. In the end, however, none quite had the same impact as the “Daisy” ad, which had special resonance given we were just two years on from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Daisy”: The Content
A young girl, played by a three-year-old Monique Corzilius, can be seen picking the petals off of a daisy flower. She counts the number of petals she picks off, although she fails to quite get some of the numbers right.
Suddenly, the frame freezes, her face in terror as she looks upward. The camera zooms into her eye until the screen is completely black; whilst doing this, a narrator counts down from 10.
At 0, the dark screen fills with an explosion, leaving behind a massive mushroom cloud.
Over the top of this, President Johnson eerily booms: “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.”
Then, the voice of Tony Schwartz adds: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay at home.” The ad can be seen below:
Daisy: It’s Reach
“Daisy” aired on September 7th on NBC during a showing of David and Bathsheba as a part of the network’s Monday Night At The Movies feature.
The ad was to air just once, at the behest of the Johnson campaign. After all, they had lit the match and the publicity was going to be free.
Indeed, although only making a single payment to air the ad, the clip was repeated across all three networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC.
Robert Mann, author of the book Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics, estimates that prior to the election, as many as 100 million Americans saw the advert – a figure equivalent to 80% of the electorate.
The Goldwater Reaction
One of the notable characteristics of the “Daisy” ad was that it did not once mention the Republican Party or Barry Goldwater, thus utilising the knowledge’s shared knowledge of Goldwater’s positions on foreign policy whilst giving Johnson plausible deniability.
The Republicans’ decry of such an advert only increased the coverage of the advert further. Figures such as Republican National Committee Chairman Burch and Senator Dirksen were amongst those outspoken against the campaign, which naturally only added to the profile of the advert, giving it in the words of Lee Edward “millions of dollars of free air time.”
William DeGregorio notes that “Goldwater objected to such tactics but never managed to shake his hawkish image.”
Via In The Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns, Goldwater responded by claiming that the ad insulted the intelligence of the electorate. Goldwater, who remained a Senator until the late 1980s, was an outspoken critic of partisan politics, particularly the attack ad style of politics (such as accusations of anti-patriotism) that developed post-1964, as can be seen by a 1988 PBS interview he participated in alongside George McGovern.
Goldwater’s anger, including the aforementioned grudge against Moyers, is understandable. After all, as Robert Mann notes: “No one had attacked anyone like that before. It was a pretty strong, implicit charge – that my opponent is a reckless cowboy who will destroy your children in a nuclear holocaust.”
Impact On The Election
The 1964 elections was one of the most lopsided in US history, with Johnson earning a landslide win. The scale of Johnson’s win is hard to comprehend, with the president toppling Goldwater with over 60% of the popular vote, the most in nearly 150 years. Goldwater won just six states, picking up 52 Electoral College Votes; Johnson won 486. The sheer immensity of Johnson’s win can be illustrated by the fact that it is the only presidential election ever in which the Democrats picked up Alaska.
Of course, there were obviously other factors that turned voters away from Goldwater.
For example, he was opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment, voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and wanted to dismantle federal welfare – he objected more to the overreach of the federal government rather than their principles but such moves earned him little praise.
Famous figures such as Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, and Jackie Robinson were outspoken critics. After Goldwater’s nomination, the latter remarked that he now had a “better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”
On The Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Goldwater noted two years later how the far from encouraging elements of the liberal Republican Party worked against him. Although he did not name names, Nelson Rockefeller was one of the most notable names who refused to endorse Goldwater and who Goldwater would feud with later on, both voting against his confirmation as vice-president in 1974 and having a key role in forcing him off the ticket in 1976.
Goldwater himself acknowledged the fact he was almost certain to end up on the losing side, with one Gallup poll showing Johnson at 77% to Goldwater’s 18%. In his memoirs, he explained that after JFK’s assassination, he knew any chance of a Republican victory was out of the window. He reminisced in 1980: “in a very real sense, the bullet that killed John [F.] Kennedy also destroyed whatever possibility there was for a Goldwater presidency.”
It would be more accurate to say that the ad compounded the already inevitable loss, putting the final nails in the coffin of Goldwater’s campaign.
It is important to look at the ad’s legacy in two ways: both the advert’s effects on the conservative movement and how the ad started a chain of long-lasting political attack ads.
Failure To Contain Conservativism
In the short term, the ad was unarguably incredibly successful in quelling the Republican’s electoral chances but in the long term, Goldwater had spurred on a new conservative movement that was to redefine the Republican Party.
Although Goldwater’s conservative brand was ridiculed in 1964, it was soon to catch on with a generation of conservative activists. This conservative movement was to take power for decades, with the Republicans going on to win 5/6 presidential elections.
One lasting legacy success for Goldwater electorally was his win in the southern states. Post-segregation, the deep south in 1964 switched to the Republicans. When signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson reportedly commented: “We’ve lost the South for a generation,” he was indeed right; the South remains sternly Republican territory to this day.
The success of future Republicans can be illustrated by 1964 being the last time Democrats won: Alaska (also the only time), Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. Moreover, Democrats did not win the entire Midwestern region until 1992.
Johnson became the last Democrat to win over 400 ECVs; Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan have both since won over 500 ECVs whilst George H.W. Bush won over 400. It is impossible today to think of any candidate winning anywhere near 400 ECVs, showing how the Republicans bounced back with some use of Goldwater conservatism. Goldwater was quite proud of his legacy, noting in his memoirs that “the new GOP was forged in the fires of the 1964 presidential campaign.”
In 1968, Nixon took on Goldwater’s idea of states’ rights in his New Federalism whilst Ronald Reagan – himself having publicly backed Goldwater in ‘64 – absorbed some of Goldwater’s economic policies in his policies known as Reaganomics. Even in the 21st century, Republicans have tipped their hat to Goldwater such as John McCain (the man who succeeded Goldwater as Senator of Arizona), who eulogised Goldwater in the words: “Barry’s purpose was always the defense of freedom. Nobody before or since managed the task more ably or more colourfully than Barry Goldwater. He held his principles close to his heart, where he held his love of country.”
1964 may not have gone so well for Goldwater but “Daisy” could only do so much to stop the rise of conservatism, serving as the final blockade to the success of the Republican Party we know today. In the words of David Farber in The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservativism quoting Bill Buckley, “the times were not yet right for the Goldwater message, nor was the conservative coalition yet broad enough or strong enough to take national power. But the conservatives day was coming.”
The Attack Ad Era
No attack ad had quite exploited the fear factor in the same way “Daisy” did and the attack ad started to become a commonplace phenomenon in US politics. Not just at the presidential level but too at the Senate and House level as well as in primaries.
This, according to Mann, was not the purpose: “They didn’t set out to revolutionize political advertising; what they wanted to do was to break the established rules of political ads—then dominated by stodgy 30-minute speeches mixed with shorter policy-focused spots—by injecting creativity and emotion.”
Politico’s Zack Stanton has referred to the ad as the Sgt. Pepper’s of political advertising – something truly revolutionary to inevitably change everything that followed.
Famous attack ads in the following decades include – but are far from limited to – the 1988 tank ride advert utilised by George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis which questioned his national loyalty and the 2004 wide surfing John Kerry advert George W. Bush used to show the Democrats flip-flopping on policy matters.
Some have even used explicit references to “Daisy” such as Bob Dole in 1996 whilst “Daisy” star Monique Corzilius, who ironically told CNN she did not like what the advert started, was used as a part of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Many have drawn parallels with Walter Mondale’s 1984 adverts which focussed on a similarly-nuclear theme.
The use of attack ads was prominent in the most recent presidential election in 2020 when $2.5 billion was spent on ads according to PBS, many of which would be negative ads.
Meanwhile, in the 2022 Midterms, many Democratic ads concentrated on the matter of abortion, a topical issue after the 2022 overturn of Roe v Wade. One of the most notable ads, in particular, was that of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who used his Yiddish heritage to teach us about “schmoes” (jerks) Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell and described the “mishegas” (insanity) of MAGA Republicans.
The “Daisy” legacy of creating fear and polarising political attack ads may leave a sour taste in the mouth as one poll reveals 82% of Americans dislike attack ads. Moyers himself later expressed sorrow, wanting to “un-invent them if possible” for their impact on advertising. However, the establishment of vicious personal assaults, character assassinations, and intrusive cheap shots is probably the longest-lasting legacy of the “Daisy” ad, even if something that Johnson could never have predicted way back in 1964.
In the words of Edwards, the “Daisy” ad “convinced future presidential candidates and managers that the most effective advertising was negative advertising, and accelerating the debasement of the electoral process.”
The New York Times has dubbed it: “probably the most controversial TV commercial of all time.”
To conclude, the legacy of the “Daisy” ad is unquestionably vast. It is true that it was not the first attack ad and too true that it was not solely responsible for Johnson’s win.
What it did however was influence the advertisements American citizens too today, for which the advert can be seen as infamous in its side effects. Playing upon the fear factor with an emotive and animated 60 seconds of cinema, the Johnson campaign “Daisy” has had a gargantuan influence on how election races are projected onto our TV screens. Simply put, once the “Daisy” bomb went off, we were all left with the adverts that arose out of the mushroom clouds which may seemingly never leave the political atmosphere.