Kennedy Is Elected President Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John F. Kennedy’s election to the U.S. presidency marked the beginning of the New Frontier era in the United States. In a sign of an emerging media age, the televised debates between candidates Kennedy, calm and articulate, and Richard M. Nixon, visibly nervous and unfocused, are considered major factors in Kennedy’s win.

Summary of Event

In 1960, the American people once again demonstrated their capacity for doing the politically unexpected by electing a Catholic Democrat, John F. Kennedy, to the presidency. A number of factors made this particular election unique, one of which was the shift in party control of the White House during a period of relative prosperity and stability. Seeking to explain this turn of events, political scientists have pointed to the personalities of the candidates, the question of religion, the type of campaign waged by each candidate, and the voting trends of the previous thirty years. While there is little unanimity as to what was most decisive in creating Kennedy’s victory, many scholars argue that the televised debates between the two candidates in September and October, 1960, played a major role. Presidency, U.S.;John F. Kennedy[Kennedy] Presidential elections, U.S.;1960 [kw]Kennedy Is Elected President (Nov. 8, 1960) [kw]President, Kennedy Is Elected (Nov. 8, 1960) Presidency, U.S.;John F. Kennedy[Kennedy] Presidential elections, U.S.;1960 [g]North America;Nov. 8, 1960: Kennedy Is Elected President[06700] [g]United States;Nov. 8, 1960: Kennedy Is Elected President[06700] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 8, 1960: Kennedy Is Elected President[06700] [c]Communications and media;Nov. 8, 1960: Kennedy Is Elected President[06700] Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;1960 presidential elections Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;1960 presidential elections Lodge, Henry Cabot, Jr. Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;1960 presidential elections Smith, Howard K.

As with all presidential elections, the story of the 1960 campaign really begins with the quest for nomination. In the case of Kennedy, the junior senator from Massachusetts, the quest for the Democratic nomination began in 1956. Failing to take advantage of his senatorial position but concentrating, instead, on his family’s past experience in U.S. politics and diplomacy, Kennedy proceeded to obtain as much national exposure as possible and to build a formidable political organization that concentrated on clan-type loyalty and a modern approach to politics. In January, 1960, he announced his candidacy and proceeded to enter the various Democratic primaries.

In Kennedy’s case, the decision to enter primaries was a political necessity. Many of the major figures in the Eastern wing of the party were skeptical about the Massachusetts senator’s national appeal and his ability to capture non-Catholic votes. West Virginia, a predominantly Protestant state, was the perfect spot to test Kennedy’s general voter appeal. Through vigorous campaigning and a direct confrontation of the religious issue, he succeeded in winning 60 percent of the vote, eliminating Senator Hubert H. Humphrey Humphrey, Hubert H. [p]Humphrey, Hubert H.;1960 presidential elections as a rival candidate and finally demonstrating his ability to win support in rural Protestant areas. After this victory, he moved on to capture delegates in Indiana, Nebraska, Maryland, and Oregon. Kennedy won a first ballot nomination in Los Angeles and surprised many of his Eastern supporters by persuading Lyndon B. Johnson, Senate majority leader and the leading presidential hopeful in the South, to take second place on the ticket. The selection of Johnson energized the New Deal coalition and helped unite the party.

In the Republican camp, the race for the nomination was much less competitive. After New York governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Rockefeller, Nelson A. withdrew in 1959, it appeared clear that Richard M. Nixon, the vice president, was assured of the presidential nomination. After a routine convention, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., of Massachusetts, an old Kennedy foe, was selected as Nixon’s running mate.

On the whole, the Republican and Democratic platforms were very similar. Both spoke of U.S. responsibility to contain communism, endorsed the economic policies of the Eisenhower regime, took credit for the general national prosperity, and made a commitment to civil rights.

As the national campaign got under way, it appeared that Kennedy faced a difficult task in breaking the Republican hold on the White House. He needed to overcome a number of problems, among which were his youth (he was forty-three years of age) and inexperience, his lack of a national reputation, and his religion. The question of religion haunted the campaign: Americans had never before elected a Roman Catholic to the presidency. Nixon completely ignored the question of religion, but Kennedy was forced to come to grips with it. On September 11, 1960, at Houston, Texas, before a meeting of Protestant ministers, Kennedy was asked to discuss the possible problems of a Catholic being president. In this first and last statement on his religion in the campaign, Kennedy emphasized that, if elected, he would make decisions on the basis of the national interest, and he reiterated his belief in the First Amendment. He told the Southern Baptists, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be a Catholic) how to vote.”

As the campaign progressed, Nixon made considerable headway with the issue of experience, while the younger Kennedy attempted to direct the public’s attention to the declining prestige of the United States abroad and the complacency at home. The turning point in the campaign for the Democrats came when both candidates appeared on national television Television;televised debates Kennedy-Nixon debates (1960)[Kennedy Nixon debates] for a series of debates. On September 26 and on three evenings in October, the candidates appeared before a panel of journalists, headed by Howard K. Smith, to answer questions of national importance. The first debate centered on domestic problems, while the following meetings concentrated on questions of foreign policy. Network executives announced that the series had been seen by the largest audience in television history. Following the election, President Kennedy pointed to the television debates as the single most important factor in his victory. The televised image of a calm, self-assured Kennedy and a nervous, ill-at-ease Nixon influenced many of the ninety million people who watched the first televised political debates in U.S. history.

Unquestionably, the debates helped Kennedy. On a financial level, the Democrats never could have met the expense required for such national television exposure. More important, however, the debates helped erase the Republican image of Kennedy as young and inexperienced. Indeed, the well-prepared Kennedy appeared articulate, informed, and highly competent. Nixon, for many reasons—including a recent illness and a narrow conception of the function of the debates—did not project well on television. All the subsequent surveys indicated that a decisive number of U.S. voters felt that Kennedy had “won” the debates and that his appearance had influenced their decision to vote for him. After this tremendous boost in prestige, the Kennedy campaign gained momentum.

Before the votes were finally counted, however, the Republicans staged a significant counterattack, which involved lavish use of television spot appearances by Nixon and a hard-hitting endorsement from President Eisenhower, who until the last week before the election had been sitting out the campaign. The final vote tally showed that Kennedy captured 303 electoral votes and 34,227,096 popular votes to Nixon’s 219 electoral votes and 34,226,731 popular votes.

Significance

In terms of the popular vote, the election of Kennedy as president was one of the closest in the nation’s history. The Democrats swept to victory on the strength of their backing in urban and industrial areas, the Catholic vote, and the support of labor and African Americans. Nixon, who won a majority in twenty-six states, captured most of the West. Of special significance in Kennedy’s victory was his ability to hold most of the Solid South in line through the campaign efforts of Johnson.

Kennedy’s inaugural address of January 20, 1961, was a memorable one. In his speech, he uttered the now-famous lines, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy outlined a “New Frontier” of sorts, when he said “Let the word go forth that from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century. . . .” The New Frontier began with Kennedy. Presidency, U.S.;John F. Kennedy[Kennedy] Presidential elections, U.S.;1960

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giglio, James A. The Presidency of John F. Kennedy. 2d rev. ed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006. A balanced and updated portrait of Kennedy’s presidency and his historical legacy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library and Museum. http://www.jfklibrary.org. The official Web site of the Kennedy presidential library and museum.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reeves, Richard. President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. A thorough examination of Kennedy as a campaigner and as a president.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reeves, Thomas C. A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy. New York: Free Press, 1991. Raises disturbing questions about Kennedy’s private life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. 1965. New ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. A Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of the brief Kennedy administration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strober, Deborah Hart, and Gerald S. Strober. The Kennedy Presidency: An Oral History of the Era. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2003. A useful history of the Kennedy years. First published in 1993 as Let Us Begin Anew.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tofel, Richard J. Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005. A thorough analysis of Kennedy’s inaugural address. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Theodore H. The Making of the President, 1960. New York: Atheneum, 1961. A journalist’s award-winning day-by-day account of the 1960 presidential campaign.

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