Richard Milhous Nixon, the 55-year-old former Vice President who lost the Presidency for the Republicans in 1960, reclaimed it yesterday to climax one of the greatest personal comebacks and one of the closest elections in the history of American politics.
His Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, conceded Nixon’s victory shortly after noon, when the 26 electoral votes of Illinois, a major state whose loss helped deprive Nixon of victory over John F. Kennedy in 1960, gave the Republican contender an Electoral College majority.
Nixon’s Illinois victory, which emerged more than 15 hours after the voting ended in Tuesday’s election, prevented third-party candidate George C. Wallace from using his 15 electoral votes to determine the choice of the 37th President and, alternatively, kept the contest from going to the House of Representatives for the first time since 1824.
Taking note of the serious division reflected in their near-even split of the popular vote, both Humphrey and Nixon referred in their post-election statements to the overriding need for national unity.
The Vice President, in his telegram of concession to Nixon and in a brief talk to supporters in Minneapolis, pledged that he would continue to work on “the urgent task of unifying this country.”
A half-hour later, the President-elect, in his first statement of the voters, said from New York that the “great objective of this Administration will be to bring the American people together.”
Shortly before midnight last night Humphrey moved 4000 votes ahead of Nixon in the popular vote on the basis of 53,120 votes cast for the second slate of electors pledged to him in Alabama.
There were two slates pledged to the Vice President in Alabama -- the National Democratic Party of Alabama, a largely Negro splinter group, and the Alabama Independent Democratic Party.
Nixon, who had stayed awake past dawn awaiting returns from the last half-dozen crucial states, was joined by his family for the celebration of his almost incredible comeback from successive defeats for the Presidency in 1960 and the governorship of his native California in 1962.
But his jubilation at the victory was clouded by his reference to the problems of an unsettled war in Vietnam and the bitter divisions in America he is inheriting from retiring President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Mr. Johnson, who renounced any effort for re-election last March rather than “permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing this political year,” as he said, told Nixon in a telegram from his Johnson City, Tex., ranch that he would “do everything in my power to make your burdens lighter.”
The pledges of cooperation from the Democratic leaders were of special significance to Nixon, who is the first President since Zachary Taylor in 1848 to be confronted at the start of his White House tenure with an opposition Congress.
Democrats on Tuesday retained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, though losing a handful of seats in each chamber to the GOP.
Nixon’s failure to build up significant majorities over Humphrey in the major states and the tendency of Wallace voters in the South to return to the Democratic Party in lesser contests apparently were responsible for blocking the Republicans’ expensive effort to take control of the House.
Nixon’s indicated share of the popular vote was the lowest for a successful presidential candidate since Woodrow Wilson won a three-way race over William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 with 4l.9 per cent of the vote.
The cross-currents in the voting raised a question whether Nixon, who had based his campaign on the need for “new leadership” in domestic and international affairs, could claim a clear mandate for any particular policy direction.
In the course of his nine-month appeal to the voters, beginning in the New Hampshire primary last winter, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Vice President had promised to bring peace to Vietnam and to curb disorder and crime in American cities without specifying in much detail the steps that would be necessary.
But in the only test a democracy applies -- an electoral majority on Election Day -- Nixon’s program proved effective.
Barring a reversal of indicated results of absentee or uncounted ballots in such close states as Alaska, Maryland, Missouri, and Texas, Nixon and his running mate, Gov. Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland, carried 3l states with 290 electoral votes -- 20 more than needed for election.
Humphrey and Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine), his vice presidential choice, carried 14 states and the District of Columbia, winning 203 electoral votes.
Wallace, the former Governor of Alabama, and his American Independent Party running mate, retired Air Force Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, took five states -- all in the South -- with 45 electoral votes.
The only states Nixon carried in 1960 that he failed to win this year were Maine, where Muskie’s popularity put the Democrats on top, and Washington.
Wallace won three states that had gone Democratic in 1960, Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia, along with Mississippi, whose electors went to Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. eight years ago, and Alabama, which divided its electoral votes between Kennedy and Byrd.
The significant shift -- the one which gave Nixon his victory this year -- came in seven states with a total of 74 electoral votes which Kennedy carried but Humphrey failed to win: Delaware, Illinois. Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Nixon led in the vote count through most of Tuesday night, but stalled short of an electoral majority because of the failing that cost him victory in 1960: his weakness in the big cities.
He lost New York City, Philadelphia and Detroit to Humphrey by massive margins, and with them the big electoral vote blocks of New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan, all states he had hoped to win.
With those states in the Humphrey column, it was not until Wednesday morning that Nixon began to see his victory emerge, Ohio, which he had won easily eight years ago, was finally given to him at 4:53 a.m. California, where his political career started with election to the House in 1946 and -- as many erroneously thought -- ended with his defeat for Governor in 1962, came into line at 8:l4 a.m.
And finally at 12:03 p.m., with networks and news services putting Illinois in the Nixon column, Humphrey conceded his defeat.
In fact, the Democratic nominee made the election much more of a horse race than had been expected and closed out his 20-year career in Washington with his reputation as the Party’s “Happy Warrior” substantially intact.
When President Johnson eliminated himself as a contender for re-election, most Democrats were persuaded that the burden of an unpopular war, added to the Nation’s domestic difficulties, made a change of parties in the White House almost inevitable.
The wounds of the pre-convention struggles were never healed. Humphrey, for example, failed to carry any of the states where the late Robert F. Kennedy and Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota had waged their presidential primary battles against the Administration policies the Vice President then felt called upon to defend.
And yet the closing weeks of the campaign saw most of the dissident elements of the Democratic Party united. Although the ticket carried only Texas, among the Southern states, the other components of the “Roosevelt Coalition,” organized labor, Negroes, Mexican-Americans and Jews, appeared to have turned out their usual majorities.
Pollsters reported that the late surge for Humphrey was heightened by favorable public reaction to Mr. Johnson’s announcement, four days before election, that he was halting all American Bombing of North Vietnam.
All this has set the stage for endless speculation about what might have been, had Humphrey sided with the “peace forces” at the Democratic convention, had McCarthy and other prominent doves been less tardy in endorsing Humphrey after the convention, or had Mr. Johnson advanced the date of his bombing halt decision.
Considering that the Republicans came back from their landslide presidential and congressional defeat in 1964 to win the Presidency this year, there would seem to be little reason for pessimism among Democrats about their prospects for recovery.
As for Wallace and his third-party movement, observers were cautious in appraising its chances for a future peace in the political spectrum. He won 13 per cent of the popular vote -- less than the short-lived Theodore Roosevelt Progressives of 1912 and the Robert M. LaFollette Progressives in 1924.
About one-quarter of the Wallace vote was concentrated in the five Deep South states he carried, four of which had registered their protest by supporting republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and probably would have gone Republican again this year.