American Elections and Campaigns – The 1960s: “Firsts for the New Decade”

The presidential election of 1960 brought with it a pair of “firsts” for American politics. It was the first presidential election with the new states of Alaska and Hawaii, and the first where both candidates were born in the 20th century. John F. Kennedy – a Navy veteran and Democratic Senator from Massachusetts – faced stiff competition for the party’s nomination for the presidential ticket. Many of his opponents were significantly older and had worked in politics for longer than him. Primarily drawn from the age differences, the older nominees asserted that Kennedy was “too young” – and by extension “too inexperienced” – to be the main candidate. Others suggested that Kennedy should run as an older candidate’s running mate, but he realized that these offers were little more than attempts to sideline his campaign. A presidency heralded by Kennedy became more viable as the campaign continued, however. The unexpected success Kennedy had while canvassing in several states surprised his first major opponent, Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. Kennedy and his family were baptized Roman Catholics, which raised concerns among the predominantly Protestant electorate that he would not have the same American cultural values held by the people he might soon lead. In spite of this, Kennedy managed to secure a main ballot nomination on the Democratic ticket. The well-organized political campaign Kennedy managed with his family was instrumental in securing electoral support in majority-Protestant states in the Midwest, including Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio. After determining that the Democrats could not secure the presidency without their strongholds in the southern states, Kennedy decided to offer Lyndon B. Johnson the position as his running mate. As the then-Senate Majority Leader in Congress, Johnson was a widely-known figure within the Democratic Party, and his Texas-born origins would make it easier to secure support among the then-largely pro-Democratic southern states.

Oval Office portrait of John F. Kennedy, 1963. (Public Domain)
Vice presidential portrait of Richard M. Nixon, c. 1953. (Public Domain)

Republican candidate Richard Nixon – the vice president under Eisenhower – started his campaign with a relatively strong support base. Highlighting his years of experience in both politics and the military, Nixon promised to maintain the “peace and prosperity” achieved under the relatively successful Eisenhower administration. Further arguing that Kennedy was too young and inexperienced to be a successful president, Nixon’s campaign had a distinct lead in the polls in the first few months of the election season. However, Nixon and his campaign were frequently afflicted with bad luck. An accidental knee injury while campaigning in North Carolina forced Nixon to recover for two weeks. Additionally, his campaign exhausted its resources by campaigning in every single state in the country, including in places where the Republicans either had little chance of winning, or had too few electoral votes to produce a lead in the polls. The turning point in the 1960 election came during the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates. In another pair of historical “firsts,” these debates were the very first of its kind to be held directly between the presidential candidates, and to be broadcasted on national television. Broadcasted live by CBS from a studio in Chicago, the first presidential debate was held on September 26 to a viewership of over 66 million. Nixon’s bad luck continued to follow him during the debate, as he was still recovering from his knee injury. He was visibly tired and ill, and his refusal to wear any sort of make-up made his blemishes and facial hair visible on the black-and-white television screens. In contrast, Kennedy extensively prepared and rested before the debate, and selectively applied make-up to hide his blemishes on the broadcast. Kennedy’s well-versed and prepared responses to the debate’s topics – in tandem with his carefully-groomed appearance – made his campaign gain a distinct lead against Nixon in the subsequent polls. Some historians and political analysts have since determined that Kennedy’s successful use of television as a communications platform secured his victory in the election. Further interpretations claim that Nixon’s shortcomings highlighted the increasing obsolescence of non-visual campaigning in American politics, especially radio. There were three more debates held in the election season, two for the presidential candidates and one for the prospective vice presidents. The third presidential debate introduced another technological innovation by using split-screen technology in the television broadcast. Kennedy and Nixon were participating in the debate from New York City and Los Angeles, respectively. To accommodate this geographic difference, the broadcasting studios provided a live feed to each other, so that the candidates could listen and respond to each other instantaneously.

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon moments before the first presidential debate, September 1960. (Associated Press)
Kennedy campaign button, 1960. (Public Domain)
Nixon campaign button, 1960. (Public Domain)

In addition to Kennedy’s religious identity, the election of 1960 highlighted two major national and world events that would define the decade: an intensified interval of the Cold War, and the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement. After the arrest of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Georgia, Kennedy publicly called for him to be released from jail. President Eisenhower refused to do so, not even after being urged to by Nixon. In response, Kennedy reached out to the Governor of Georgia, other local authorities, and to King’s family for more information. Kennedy’s outreach efforts to King and his family helped to secure their support for his presidency, producing a surge in African American political support for the Democratic ticket. For his approach to the Cold War, Kennedy asserted that the U.S. fell behind the Soviet Union in both its military and scientific posture during the previous Eisenhower administration. The communist regime of Fidel Castro had recently been set up in Cuba, along with a series of Soviet-allied military installations just 90 miles south of the United States. Kennedy claimed that the Soviets had also created more nuclear weapons than the United States, introducing the concept of the “missile gap” into the political lexicon. Meanwhile, the Soviets had successfully launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, the world’s first artificial satellite. Eisenhower’s creation of NASA during his presidency brought the first American spacecraft into orbit via the Project Mercury program, but his larger goal to have American astronauts go to space and land on the Moon would later fall into Kennedy’s charge when he became president. Kennedy ultimately won the 1960 presidential election, securing 303 electoral votes over Nixon’s 219. Support for Kennedy was largely concentrated along the East Coast and the Southern states, while Nixon maintained support on the West Coast and the Midwestern states. Certain controversies prevailed among political figures from both the Republican and Democratic parties, primarily regarding accusations of voter fraud in certain states, and certain faithless electors refusing to support Kennedy’s civil rights platform, respectively.

Photograph of President Kennedy meeting leaders from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1963. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Portrait photograph of civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall. He was appointed by President Kennedy to the federal court system in 1961, and would later become the first African American Supreme Court justice in 1967. (Library of Congress)

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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