The 1960 Presidential Election

In the 1960 Presidential election, Richard Nixon’s position as two-time Vice-President for Eisenhower led him to be largely unopposed among the Republicans. However, on the Democratic side, there were numerous candidates vying for the nomination. The most significant Democratic hopefuls were Stuart Symington, Senator from Missouri, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), Senator from Texas, John F. Kennedy (JFK), Senator from Massachusetts, and Hubert Humphrey, Senator from Minnesota. Kennedy, despite his younger age and being a Catholic, won the highly contested nomination.

The Presidential election pitted Richard M. Nixon as the Republican candidate versus John F. Kennedy, Senator from Massachusetts, as the Democratic Party candidate. Nixon’s running mate was Henry Cabot Lodge, former Massachusetts Senator and United Nations Ambassador. Nixon chose Lodge because his foreign-policy credentials fit into Nixon’s strategy to campaign more on foreign policy than domestic policy, which he believed favored the Democrats. Kennedy chose Lyndon B. Johnson, Democratic Senator from Texas and Majority Leader of the Senate, largely because LBJ was popular in the South and could be counted on to gather the South’s electoral college votes.

The major issues in the 1960 presidential election were the space race between the U.S. and the USSR, Cold War tensions, Civil Rights, Kennedy’s youth and purported inexperience, who was better suited to deal with the Russians, Kennedy’s purported pro socialistic campaign promises, i.e. increased government spending for medical programs, and Kennedy being a Catholic. During the campaign, Eisenhower made a remark that hurt Nixon. In response to a question from a reporter that asked what contributions Nixon had made to his presidency, Eisenhower said that he could give them an answer if he had a week to think about it. Although Eisenhower later said that he was joking, the remark gave the Democrats something to exploit. This election featured the first televised debates between presidential candidates. The debates turned out to be critical to the outcome of the election. (The debates are discussed below in the section on television in the Fifties.)

Kennedy eked out a victory in a very close race. In the national popular vote, Kennedy beat Nixon by less than two tenths of one percentage point (0.17%). So close was the popular vote that a shift of 18,858 votes in Illinois and Missouri, both won by Kennedy by less than 1%, would have left both Kennedy and Nixon short of the 269 electoral votes required to win, thus forcing a contingent election in the House of Representatives. In the Electoral College, Kennedy’s victory was larger, as he took 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219. A total of 15 electors, eight from Mississippi, six from Alabama, and one from Oklahoma all refused to vote for either Kennedy or Nixon, and instead cast their votes for Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, a conservative Democrat, even though he had not been a candidate for president. Kennedy carried 12 states by three percentage points or less, while Nixon won six by similarly narrow margins. Kennedy carried all but three states in the populous Northeast, and he also carried the large states of Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri in the Midwest. With Lyndon Johnson’s help, he also carried most of the South, including the large states of North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas. Nixon carried all but three of the Western states (including California), and he ran strong in the farm belt states, where his biggest victory was in Ohio.