​The 1964 presidential campaign got attention among electric cooperatives like no other because President Lyndon Johnson was a champion of rural electrification while his challenger, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, had a 92% unfavorable voting record on co-op issues. 

Goldwater publicly stated that co-ops had “outlived their usefulness in most states.” He called for selling the Tennessee Valley Authority “even if the government could get only one dollar for it.” 

“Had he been successful in his bid for the presidency, he would have wrecked our program,” NRECA General Manager Clyde T. Ellis wrote in his 1966 book A Giant Step.  And later: “With Goldwaterites heading the government agencies and dominating Congress, rural electrification as we had known it could never hope to survive.” 

A red flag was raised in 1960 when Goldwater published The Conscience of a Conservative, his manifesto on conservative principles in contemporary politics. When electric co-op leaders read that “the government must begin to withdraw from a whole series of government programs,” including “public power” and “agriculture” on a “rigid timetable,” they knew the Arizona Senator was talking about the federal power marketing agencies and the Rural Electrification Administration.

Investor-owned utilities loved the book. Ellis noted that one of them, Virginia Electric Power Company, bought 500 copies and distributed them to high school libraries in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.

Goldwater and Ellis saw the world very differently. Sparring at a 1956 Senate hearing, the Arizonan argued that it made no difference whether the federal government or investor-owned utilities developed hydroelectric power on the nation’s rivers.

Ellis and asserted that the “natural resource of falling water … belongs to the people.” Private companies and their stockholders should not be allowed to profit from it over not-for-profit companies like co-ops and municipal utilities. 

Meanwhile, Johnson “had a long record of support for our program,” and his running mate, Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey “had led us to some of our most vital victories in Congress,” Ellis wrote.

If there was lingering doubt that election year about where Goldwater and the Republican leadership stood on rural electrification, it was eliminated when the National Observer newspaper reported that the candidate’s advisors named only one thing when asked for examples of what the candidate might eliminate if he were President: the Rural Electrification Administration.

“To people who had dedicated their lives to the rural electrification program, it was unthinkable that anyone with such views might become president,” Ellis wrote. “With a grim determination, that united us as never before – Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives – in a massive effort to be certain he did not carry the rural areas.”

NRECA, the National Farmers Union, the Cooperative League of the U.S.A. and other like-minded groups and individuals organized Rural Americans for Johnson-Humphrey, and by September there were chapters in 40 states. Volunteers distributed more than thee million pieces of campaign literature, according to Ellis. And “well over 2,000 radio tapes were prepared and sent to stations throughout the country, along with many TV tapes, and they were widely used.” 

County and precinct chapters did everything from hand out Johnson-Humphrey bumper stickers to putting on fundraising dinners.

“The locals did the actual campaigning with the voters and got out the vote on Election Day,” Ellis wrote. Many of those locals were electric co-ops members, directors and employees.  

It worked. Johnson won 61 percent of the popular vote in a landslide victory in which Goldwater was awarded only six states.

Most newspapers and magazines noted the strength of the rural vote in their election round-up stories, and many singled out Goldwater’s opposition to rural electrification as a decisive factor.  

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch commented on the unpopularity of Goldwater’s stance on REA and TVA, and then added, “The country part of the country plainly wasn’t buying the Goldwater brand of economics.”​