The 1966 California gubernatorial election was held on November 8, 1966. The election was a contest between incumbent GovernorPat Brown, the Democratic candidate, and actor Ronald Reagan, the Republican candidate. Reagan mobilized conservative voters and defeated Brown in a landslide. This was the second consecutive gubernatorial election in which Brown ran against a future Republican president.
Incumbent Edmund G. (Pat) Brown had been a relatively popular Democrat in what was, at the time, a Republican-leaning state. After his re-election victory over former Vice PresidentRichard Nixon in 1962, Brown was strongly considered for Lyndon Johnson's 1964 ticket, a spot that eventually went to Hubert Humphrey. However, Brown's popularity began to sag amidst the civil disorders of the Watts riots and the early student protests at UC Berkeley (e.g., the Free Speech Movement). His decision to seek a 3rd term as governor (after promising earlier that he would not do so) also hurt his popularity. His diminishing support was evidenced by a tough battle in the Democratic primary – normally not a concern for an incumbent. Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty received 38% of the primary vote while Brown barely received 52%, a very low number for an incumbent in a primary election.
The Republicans seized upon Brown's sudden unpopularity by nominating a well-known and charismatic political outsider—actor Ronald Reagan. With Richard Nixon working tirelessly behind the scenes and Reagan trumpeting his law and order campaign message, Reagan received almost two-third of the votes in the Republican primary over George Christopher, the moderate Republican former mayor of San Francisco, and went into the general election with a great deal of momentum. After pollsters discovered that the UC Berkeley student protests were a major priority of Republican voters, Reagan repeatedly promised to "clean up the mess at Berkeley." At first Brown ran a low-key campaign, declaring that running the state was his biggest priority. As Reagan's lead in the polls increased, however, Brown began to panic and made a serious gaffe: he ran a television commercial in which he used a rhetorical question to remind a group of school children that "an actor" (i.e., John Wilkes Booth) had killed Abraham Lincoln. The crude comparison of Reagan to Booth based on their common professional background as actors did not go over well with the California electorate and led to a further decline of the Brown campaign. Come election day, Reagan was ahead in the polls and favored to win a relatively close election. However, Reagan won decisively; his nearly 1 million vote plurality surprised even his strongest supporters. Brown won in only three counties: Alameda, Plumas, and San Francisco. He narrowly won Alameda by about 2,000 votes (.5%) and Plumas by about 100 votes (1.6%).