The Election of 1960
On the afternoon of July 14, 1960, Democratic Presidential nominee John F. Kennedy made official his chosen running mate for that year's election - Missouri Senator Stuart Symington.
Kennedy's first choice
Kennedy's first choice
The decision was not especially surprising - as Kennedy and Symington had a strong personal relationship from their time together in the Senate. Kennedy's closet advisor, Robert Kennedy, supported the Democratic nominee's choice of running mate.
Robert Kennedy may have had a bigger influence on his brother's choice of running mate than anyone else. It was he who managed to talk John Kennedy out of visiting Lyndon Johnson's hotel suite and offering him the chance to be Vice President.
While the prospect of securing Texas was appealing to many within the Kennedy campaign, the candidate was ultimately swayed by the prospect of having a close working relationship with Symington, rather than the tense relation he had and would continue to have with Johnson.
The choice of Symington was largely welcomed by Kennedy’s inner circle. Symington was a safe choice who would unite the party, given Symington was formerly the favoured candidate of Harry Truman. The former President was delighted to see Symington on the ticket.
However, not everyone close to Kennedy was as accepting of Symington being on the ticket.
"Joe Kennedy berated his sons for the decision not to include Johnson on the ticket. He declared it the "dumbest thing they'd ever done."
-- Ascending to the Throne: John F. Kennedy in 1960, Robert Caro (2011)
All the same, Symington was nominated that evening over the objections of a number of southern delegates.
Symington’s speech was succinct, to the point and reaffirmed the tickets commitment to liberalism and to their platform.
“My fellow Democrats. My fellow Americans.
I accept your nomination for Vice President of the United States.
In doing so I vow to uphold the values and principled of our party.
Only the Democratic Party and can preserve the American way of life for our children and grandchildren.
And only Jack Kennedy can lead the way as the next President in protecting and enriching that way of life.”
The next night on July 15, Senator Kennedy would deliver a speech of his own:
“Let me say first that I accept the nomination of the Democratic Party.
I accept it without reservation and with only one obligation, the obligation to devote every effort of my mind and spirit to lead our Party back to victory and our Nation to greatness.
I am grateful, too -- I am grateful, too, that you have provided us with such a strong platform to stand on and to run on. Pledges which are made so eloquently are made to be kept. "The Rights of Man" -- the civil and economic rights essential to the human dignity of all men -- are indeed our goal and are indeed our first principle. This is a Platform on which I can run with enthusiasm and with conviction.
And I am grateful, finally, that I can rely in the coming months on many others: On an accomplished running-mate who will fight hard for our needs as a nation and as a people, the next Vice President of the United States, Stuart Symington; on a giant of the Democratic Party and one of the great Senate leaders of history, Lyndon Johnson; on one of the most articulate spokesmen of modern times, Adlai Stevenson; on my traveling companion in Wisconsin and West Virginia, Senator Hubert Humphrey; on Paul Butler, our devoted and courageous Chairman; and on that fighting campaigner whose support I now welcome, President Harry Truman.
Kennedy would go out to outline his vision of a “New Frontier”, which were a set of challenges he believed could be overcome, including poverty and civil rights.
Richard Nixon: Heir Apparent
While Kennedy’s speech in Los Angeles was generally well received, one observer, Richard Nixon, was not as impressed.
Watching with two members of his own staff, Nixon concluded that Kennedy’s speech was poor and that he could beat the young Senator in a debate.
The Republican National Convention occurred two weeks later, nominating Vice President Richard Nixon and former Senator Henry Calbot Lodge Jr of Massachusetts.
President Eisenhower was a strong supporter of Lodge and his foreign policy background made up for any deficiencies he might have had as a speaker or campaigner.
However, historians would generally come to regard Nixon’s choice of Lodge as a mistake. The winner of Massachusetts was hardly in doubt in 1960 and Lodge offered very little on the campaign trail.
Nixon briefly spoke of the opposing candidates’ choice of running mate in his own convention speech:
“And tonight, too, I particularly want to thank this convention for nominating as my running mate a world statesman of the first rank, my friend and colleague, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts.
In contrast to what you saw in Los Angeles, you nominated a man who will embrace the future, rather than retreat to the ideas of yesterday.
Make no mistake, my fellow Republicans, the Democrats would take us back to a time before President Eisenhower’s leadership. A time of economic uncertainly and weakness on the world stage.”
The stage was set for the general election – it would Nixon and Lodge vs Kennedy and Symington.
Nixon had a slim lead over Kennedy coming out of the conventions, but Election Day was still a long way away.
The Campaign BeginsNixon and Kennedy had competing themes that they were running on.
As part of his “New Frontier” Kennedy ran on a number of key ideas including a stronger national defence (citing the “missile gap”), an end to tight monetary policy, civil rights, economic development and more.
Nixon by comparison campaigned on the basis that he had the experience to keep America strong in the fight against communism and continue the work that began in the Eisenhower administration.
The two opposing candidates differed in terms of their strategy for winning voters.
At the RNC, Nixon had promised to campaign across all 50 states. In retrospect, this proved to be another mistake on his part.
While Nixon spread himself thin across the nation, Kennedy maintained a far more focused strategy.
Kennedy campaigned across several key states he felt that he could swing his way such as New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
The Kennedy campaign was less certain of maintaining the Solid South, with the loss of Texas being a particular hurdle to get over when it came to the necessary number of Electoral College votes. They were not helped by the fact that Senator Johnson did little to help the Kennedy/Symington ticket.
After all, no Democratic candidate had won the Presidency without winning Texas since it became a state in 1845.
In an attempt to offset this, Kennedy campaigned aggressively up and down the West Coast. He went to farms and big cities alike, talking about urban issues as well as issues that effected Oregon farmers.
“We did not abandon Texas or the South entirely, but we knew that without Johnson it would be almost impossible to win Texas. Without Texas it would be a tough climb to get to 269 electoral college votes. Campaigning on the west coast was our best bet. California might have been Nixon’s home state, but polling was close there.”
-- A quote Stephen Edward Smith on CBS’s award winning documentary The Campaign of 1960 (1971)
Kennedy still made clandestine backroom deals with southern politicians to ensure their support come election day. During a tour of Georgia, Kennedy met with Governor Ernest Vandiver and promised he would not use federal troops to enforce segregation. In return, Vandiver would support the young Senator from Massachusetts in his bid for the presidency.
Kennedy also benefited from several celebrity endorsements and even a campaign jingle sung by Frank Sinatra, a rendition of his hit song, High Hopes.
Still, he trailed Nixon in all but a few states. Something needed to happen to shake up the race.
Thankfully for him, that something was just around the corner.
On August 24, 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a press conference in which he was asked about a key achievement of Nixon’s during his administration. The President responded, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
The statement severely undermined the narrative of Nixon’s experience. Several television ads were developed and aired by Democrats which highlighted this statement.
Nixon’s bad luck continued through August and September as a physician reveals his knee has become badly infected.
From August 29 to September 9, Nixon is stuck in Walter Reed hospital. This robbed him of valuable campaign time.
On September 9, Nixon is released from hospital and begins campaigning again on the 12th of that month.
However, shortly after resuming active campaigning, Nixon caught a cold. Anxious to make up lost time, he campaigned despite this.
It was over this period that the Nixon and Kennedy campaigns agreed to three Presidential debates and one Vice Presidential debate, held in between the first and second debate.
The Nixon campaign never would have agreed to any Vice-Presidential debate had Johnson been Kennedy’s running mate, however with Symington they felt that Lodge could prove his competence to the voting public.
The first Presidential debate proved to be yet another setback for the Nixon campaign.
Prior to the debate, Kennedy had made sure to consult with television producers to discuss television camera angles and the general position. His choice of blue suit was designed to make him stand out from the backdrop of the set and he made sure to apply stage makeup warn by actors.
Furthermore, his campaign staff ensured he was well rested and prepared prior to the debate.
By comparison, Nixon campaigned up until a few hours prior to the debate. He made no effort to account for the differences between a traditional debate and a televised debate, nor wear makeup or wear an appropriate suit.
His inadequate preparation was made worse by the fact his intense schedule had prevented him from recovering from his bout with illness or his knee injury. His sickly appearance and shifty demeanour detracted from his performance.
As a result, television audiences favoured Kennedy by a wide margin, even if both men were regarded as giving strong performances when looking at content alone.
With 70 million viewers, the debate proved a major boon to the Kennedy campaign. After the debate, Kennedy went from being slightly behind Nixon to slightly ahead.
He even had a slight lead in Nixon’s home state of California, Washington and Wisconsin among other key states.
The Vice-Presidential debate occurred one week later.
Any hope that the Vice-Presidential debate would reverse the success of last weeks were ultimately not realised.
Topics included foreign affairs and how both men would support their respective running mates as Vice President, should they win.
The foreign affairs section of the debate was largely inconclusive – both men demonstrated a solid understanding of world affairs and US military capabilities, given Lodge was the former UN Ambassador and Symington a former Secretary of the Air Force and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
However, regarding the relationship to their running mates, Symington was thought to have given a stronger, more impassioned response.
He cited the strong rapport he had with Kennedy, their agreement on key issues and Kennedy’s assurances that he would have key involvement in the major issues facing administration.
Lodge made a gaffe when he said that he would be as involved in the Nixon administration as Nixon was in Eisenhower’s. This brought back memories of Eisenhower’s “give me a week” line.
Ultimately though, this debate had a little less than half the number of viewers of the first Presidential debate and the impact on the polls was slight, if any.
Privately, however, Nixon was furious. He had hoped Lodge might rise to the challenge and stem the bleeding of from the first debate, but this did not occur.
For the second debate, Nixon was far more prepared. He went through much of the same preparation that Kennedy did before their first debate.
The result of that preparation paid dividends. Nixon was regarded as having won that debate.
His bump in the polls was not as strong as Kennedy’s however, due to the smaller audience.
Finally, in the third debate, both men gave perhaps their strongest performance.
While Kennedy initially wanted to disagree with Nixon on the issue of Quemoy-Matsu, he ultimately decided it would be unwise to let Nixon have any excuse to paint him as weak on the issue of communism.
Thus, he largely agreed with Nixon’s position that the US should commit itself to defending Quemoy and Matsu alongside Formosa.
As the debates concluded, it was becoming clear this race was going to be one of the closest in American history.
A critical endorsementThrough October and leading into November, the candidates continued their respective strategies.
Nixon traveled from state-to-state, while Kennedy focused on several key states and made stronger use of the medium of television.
Another major event would shake up the race for the presidency – the arrest of Martin Luther King Jr.
As news of the arrest made headlines, Sargent Shriver was able to convince his brother-in-law to discretely contact Governor Vandiver to pull strings behind the scenes to get King out.
Shriver also pressed Kennedy make a phone call to Coretta Scott King, which he promptly did:
“I want to express to you my concern about your husband. I know this must be very hard for you. I just wanted you to know that I was thinking about you and Dr. King…If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me.”
-- Senator Kennedy during his call to Coretta Scott King
Sure enough, after 30 hours of confinement, Martin Luther King Jr was released from jail on a $2000 bond.
King’s release and Kennedy’s involvement in making it happen had a profound impact on the race.
Kennedy, who had previously been regarded as lukewarm on the issue of African American affairs, was now the overwhelming favourite of black voters.
Martin Luther King Jr made mention of Kennedy in a speech after his release:
“I understand from very reliable sources that Senator Kennedy served as a great force in making the release possible. For him to be that courageous shows that he is really acting upon principle and not expediency. I hold Senator Kennedy in very high esteem… I am convinced he will seek to exercise the power of his office to fully implement the civil rights plank of his party’s platform.”
The Reverend’s father, Martin Luther King Sr, made a full endorsement of the Senator from Massachusetts:
“I had expected to vote against Senator Kennedy because of his religion. Now he can be my president, Catholic or whatever he is.”
-- Martin Luther King Sr.
Nixon’s silence on this issue was regarded as a betrayal by his African American supporters, including Jackie Robinson. Martin Luthor King Jr felt a very personal sense of betrayal due to Nixon’s inaction, as he had multiple meetings with the Vice President and the two had formed a mutual respect.
Now, it appeared King and much of the African American community would support John F. Kennedy for President.
They would expect that support to be paid back in full if and when Kennedy got into the White House.
The final stretchAs the campaign entered its final two weeks, it became clear that Kennedy had gained a slim but consistent lead over Nixon.
But the Nixon campaign still had one card left to play – popular incumbent President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower’s health had precluded him from a heavy schedule of campaigning through much of the campaign, so he had to be used sparingly.
It was eventually agreed he would be best served in the final two weeks, making a tour through several key states culminating in a massive rally in New York City, which would be covered by the national media.
Kennedy by comparison continued with his strategy of visiting several key states. He campaigned in California with Pat Brown, Washington with Scoop Jackson, barnstormed the Midwest, visited Missouri with his running mate Stuart Symington and traveled through Pennsylvania to New England, making sure to make his presence known in New York.
Come November 8, there was nothing left to do but wait for the results.
The resultsOn Election Day, both candidates were anxious about the result. On Election Day, polls had the two candidates essentially dead even.
Nixon was privately very pessimistic about the result. He was the Vice President to one of the most popular Presidents of all time. He was running on a record of peace and prosperity, yet he was likely about to come up short in his own bid for the Presidency.
Kennedy meanwhile was still anxious, but he and his inner circle maintained a cautiously optimistic outlook.
The results began pouring in.
Both candidates watched and listened as states were called…Georgia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Missouri for Kennedy.
Meanwhile, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa and Wisconsin went for Nixon.
And on and on it went.
Late into the night, Texas was called for Nixon, a cheer rang out from his offices. Meanwhile, Kennedy’s campaign headquarters was rife with campaign staff cursing and lamenting how they “should have chosen Johnson”.
There was even some talk of what deals could be made with the southern Dixiecrats if neither candidate reached 269 electoral college votes.
Sargent Shriver was said to have very loudly proclaimed, “We are not throwing out the civil rights plank!”
California was projected for Nixon, as was Oregon.
However, Washington went to Kennedy. His extensive campaigning up the west coast had paid off somewhat after all.
Eventually, Illinois was called for Kennedy, as was Arkansas and New Mexico.
Come morning, it was becoming clear who the next President of the United States was going to be.
Nixon called Kennedy to concede.
The incumbent Vice-President then faced the raucous crowd and gave an upbeat concession speech.
-- An excerpt of Nixon's concession speech“I want to give…my congratulations Senator Kennedy for his fine race in this campaign and to all of you – I am sure all of his supporters are just as enthusiastic for him as you are for me and I thank you for that…I have great faith that our people, Republicans and Democrats alike will unite behind our next President in seeing that America does meet the challenge that destiny has placed upon us.”
Shortly after this, President-Elect Kennedy gave his victory speech:
-- An excerpt of Kennedy's victory speech"To all Americans I say that the next four years are going to be difficult and challenging years for us all that a supreme national effort will be needed to move this country safely through the 1960s. I ask your help and I can assure you that every degree of my spirit that I possess will be devoted to the long-range interest of the United States and to the cause of freedom around the world."
When the electoral map was filled it, it showed an extremely narrow victory for Kennedy, with 276* electoral college votes to him and 246 to Nixon.
*4 of Alabama’s 11 Democratic electors vote for Kennedy, bringing his electoral college total up to 276.
Of the states Kennedy won, Illinois and Washington were particularly close.
Illinois was decided by less than 8,000 while Washington, upon recount, was decided by 590 votes.
In terms of the popular vote, Nixon would earn 49.5% and Kennedy earned 49.2%.
When it was all said and done, John F. Kennedy would become the 4th President in history and the first President since Benjamin Harrison in 1888 to win an election despite losing the popular vote.
But all the same, he would become the next President of the United States.
It was up to him to deliver on his commitments and guide the world through what was sure to be a turbulent next 4 years.