Curtis Gans, who helped organize a quixotic crusade to depose PresidentLyndon B. Johnson in 1968 and transformed the movement’s improbable electoral success into what became a lifelong object lesson in the virtues of voting, died on Sunday in Frederick, Md. He was 77.
The cause was lung cancer, his son, Aaron, said.
Mr. Gans was introduced to national politics in 1967, when he and Allard K. Lowenstein, a kinetic architect of what was then called the New Politics, organized the Coalition for a Democratic Alternative, a group opposed to the war in Vietnam. It evolved into the Dump Johnson movement, with the presidential campaign of Senator Eugene J. McCarthy, a Minnesota Democrat who declared his candidacy on Nov. 30, 1967, as its vehicle.
Mr. Gans, who was 30 and would become national political operations director of the McCarthy campaign, was widely credited with mobilizing thousands of college students to join the effort, many of whom shaved their beards and trimmed their hair in a “clean for Gene” crusade for New Hampshire primary voters. The senator captured 42 percent of the state’s primary vote to Johnson’s 49 percent — a stunning rebuff to an incumbent president.
On March 31, after Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York also challenged Mr. Johnson for the nomination, the president shocked the nation by announcing that he would not seek re-election. On April 2, with Mr. Gans again in charge of the campaign, Mr. McCarthy won the Wisconsin primary, with 56 percent to 35 percent for the president, whose name had remained on the ballot.
Later, as co-founder and director of what is now known as the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington, Mr. Gans became an expert resource for scholars and journalists and a determined advocate for greater voter participation and what he called “the religion of civic duty.”
“We’re one of the few democracies in the world that puts the entire burden for registering on the citizen and not on the state,” he once said.
He unrelentingly lamented the decline in voter turnout, which has hovered at roughly half of all those eligible since about 1980, and the resultant shrinking mandates for winning presidential candidates.
Mr. Gans blamed several factors: state and local bureaucratic obstacles to registration and voting; a growing barrage of demagogic campaign advertisements on television; even early projections of the results on Election Day, which he said discouraged last-minute voters.
“Every year, the nation seems further and further from the political comity, cohesion and consensus that makes possible the constructive address of citizen needs,” Mr. Gans wrote in The Washington Monthly in 2000. “The nation that prides itself on being the best example of government of, for and by the people is rapidly becoming a nation whose participation is limited to the interested or zealous few.”
Curtis Bernard Gans was born in Manhattan on June 17, 1937. His father, Kurt, was a coffee merchant. His mother, the former Irene Katz, was a masseuse. He attended the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx and graduated from the University of North Carolina, where he majored in history and philosophy and was editor of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper. He later worked as a reporter for United Press International and was in Dallas the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
He was introduced to student activism through the civil rights movement and eventually became national affairs vice president of the National Student Association. (He was among the association’s officers who demanded an accounting of subsidies it had surreptitiously received from the Central Intelligence Agency.)
He participated in protests against racial segregation at the Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., and represented the student association at the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Gans helped found the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which later became part of American University’s Center for Democracy and Election Management. He was the author of numerous articles and a book, “Voter Turnout in the United States, 1788-2009.”
In addition to his son, he is survived by a half brother, John Laton. His marriages to Shelley Fidler and Eugenia Grohman ended in divorce. He lived in Lovettsville, Va.
As the McCarthy campaign demonstrated, Mr. Gans’s passion for voter participation represented a commitment to democratic ends, not merely a scholarly abstraction about means. Reviewing a primer by the community organizer Saul D. Alinsky for The New York Times Book Review in 1971, Mr. Gans cited the potency of single-issue causes, like the civil rights, antiwar and Dump Johnson movements in which he had participated.
“Perhaps the most important and potentially revolutionary impact of those movements was the emergence of thousands and perhaps millions of people who could be motivated to political action by self-interest defined in terms of the best interests of the society,” Mr. Gans wrote. “This potential community of the committed offers the hope for a truly powerful national movement for social change.”