With these events—favorable and portentous—as a backdrop, the presidential campaign of 1964 got under way. It was a foregone conclusion that Johnson would have the Democratic nomination, which he received at Atlantic City late in August amid much hoopla over the selection of a vice presidential candidate. Johnson, who played a cat-and-mouse game with several possible candidates (he had already ruled out Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the late president), was searching for a man, he said, who was "attractive and prudent and progressive." He believed he had found him in Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, who had been his colleague in the Senate from the time they were both elected to it in 1948. (Johnson would keep Humphrey very busy, but on a short tether. When Winston Churchill died in 1965, Johnson could not attend the funeral because of illness. But he would not dispatch Humphrey in his place for reasons he never made public.)
Meanwhile, the Republicans had nominated the conservative Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, as they shunted aside the liberal, internationalist, eastern wing of the party, whose leaders included Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York. One of only six Republicans who had voted against the civil rights bill, Goldwater was hoping to win the election by cobbling together support in the South and in the West and by providing the nation with what he spoke of as "a choice, not an echo." When eastern Republicans sought to denounce conservative extremists in the party—especially the John Birch Society—Goldwater assured fellow Republicans in his acceptance address that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" The alarm of moderates was heightened when Goldwater told a reporter that if he could, he would "drop a low-yield atomic bomb on Chinese supply lines in Vietnam."
Johnson campaigned as an experienced man whose restraint and judgment in military matters could be relied upon. It seemed unremarkable in July when five hundred more troops—so-called advisers—were dispatched to Vietnam because Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had already been increasing gradually the American military presence there. And the general public seems not to have become exercised when, on 2 and 4 August, in murky circumstances, North Vietnamese torpedo boats allegedly attacked United States destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin near North Vietnam's coast. Johnson ordered massive air attacks on targets in North Vietnam in retaliation. Moreover, on 7 August he obtained a congressional resolution—ever since known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution—supporting the president in whatever action he deemed necessary "to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression" in Southeast Asia. It was not unlike the resolution that Congress had given Eisenhower in 1958 when he sent marines into Lebanon, and its passage was widely approved in the country at large.
Johnson had the support of the middle sector of American political sentiment, which was eager both to avoid a nuclear confrontation and to leave untouched the major domestic reforms, to which people had grown accustomed. Goldwater's broadside attacks on the Social Security Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the graduated income tax played into Johnson's hands. The president could appear the solid man, continuing in international affairs the tried-and-true policies of the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy years. He had shown he was in the tradition of the New Deal by putting Humphrey on the ticket. He showed he was the peace candidate by saying of the conflict rapidly heating up in Vietnam, "We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." Furthermore, where Republicans were saying of Goldwater, "In your heart, you know he's right," Democrats were responding, "In your heart, you know he might." Unlike his opponent, Johnson could be counted on, the country was assured, not to press the button that would start a nuclear war. The unabashed way in which Goldwater referred to the Soviet Union as "the enemy" also alarmed many voters, who concluded that Goldwater regarded open war with the Soviets as unavoidable.
In domestic matters Johnson seemed a wizard. Having staunchly supported and pressed upon Congress early in 1964 Kennedy's $80 billion tax cut proposal despite dire predictions by business people of its likely effect, economic activity flourished. All of the usual indicators—consumer spending, gross national product, and federal tax receipts—showed the success the Democrats had predicted.
Johnson received the election results at the Driskill Hotel in Austin. Amid his closest friends he reveled in the greatest popular victory in American history. With 43 million votes, he had run 16 million ahead of Goldwater, carrying 44 states and losing only Arizona and 5 states of the Deep South. The immense triumph had the effect of changing the politics of America, giving Johnson what he labeled "a mandate for unity." On his coattails rode to victory hundreds of Democratic candidates for lesser offices throughout the country. In the House of Representatives the Republicans lost 37 seats, giving the Democrats 295 places to 140 for the Republicans. The 2 seats the Democrats picked up in the Senate enlarged the margin of the Democrats, making it 68 to 32. The nation could see that one effect of Goldwater's anemic candidacy was to open the way for an expansion of the Great Society programs. Johnson would not have to endure the tug-of-war with Capitol Hill that had been Kennedy's lot.