"With only about four hours of work and a handful of supporters, I came within thirty-three and a half votes of winning the Vice Presidential nomination," Kennedy told an aide, David Powers, the following November. "If I work hard for four years, I ought to be able to pick up all the marbles." And work hard Kennedy did. He did not become a declared candidate until early 1960, but in the three and a half years before that he delivered hundreds of speeches, appeared frequently on television shows, published many articles, and was often the subject of others. He established contacts with potential Democratic delegates and nurtured them carefully. His efforts were appreciably helped by his family's wealth.
Kennedy's methodical pursuit of the nomination so far in advance of the convention was unprecedented. Some experts and some of his rivals thought he was starting too early, but he proved the experts wrong and stole a march on his rivals. He was, in fact, setting a precedent that has proved enduring. Kennedy's campaign for the nomination in 1960, as described by Theodore H. White in his popular The Making of the President , 1960, became Republican Barry Goldwater's model in 1964. All successful non-incumbent candidates for major-party nominations have followed suit, beginning years ahead of the conventions and methodically building personal followings within their parties. The days of the well-positioned favorite son, of the coy disclaimer of presidential ambition, and of the brokered convention seemed to be over.
To a greater extent than at any time since the Civil War, the leading candidates in 1960 were members of the Senate: Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Stuart Symington on the Democratic side, and the presiding officer of the Senate, Vice President Richard Nixon, a former senator, on the Republican side. In the past, governors had been more prominent in presidential races. The shift in emphasis to the Senate reflected the growing importance of the national news media, particularly television, for they focused attention on broad national and international issues, about which senators presumably had the greatest awareness and expertise.
The 1960 presidential campaign came against an ambiguous background. The country was at peace and there was general prosperity. Eisenhower remained a popular president who, even Kennedy partisans agree, could have been reelected to a third term had not the recently enacted Twenty-second Amendment prohibited it. Yet a series of events, disclosures, and reports suggested that the United States was slipping in its decade-long struggle to contain Communism. The Soviet Union, it appeared, was moving ahead of the United States in winning friends in the new, decolonized nations of the world; was making rapid strides in science and technology, as evidenced by its launching of Sputnik ; and was besting America in weapons development, presumably causing a "missile gap." At home, a popular argument went, Americans were sated with consumer goods and insufficiently committed to public needs in such areas as job development and economic growth, education, medical care, and civil rights for the nation's black minority. Eisenhower, however popular he remained, seemed to influential opinion leaders, if not to the general public, a passive observer of America's deterioration.
Kennedy ran on the slogans "Get America Moving Again" and "To Seek a New Frontier." His speechwriters in 1960 were instructed to drive home the theme that we had "to summon every segment of our society . . . to restore America's relative strength as a free nation . . . to regain our security and leadership in a fast changing world menaced by Communism." Implicitly his campaign also repudiated Eisenhower's style of leadership. Without ever mentioning Eisenhower by name, he rejected a "restricted concept of the Presidency," advocating that
the President place himself in the very thick of the fight, that he care passionately about the fate of the people he leads, that he be willing to serve them at the risk of incurring their momentary displeasure . . . [that he] be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office—all that are specified and some that are not.
Kennedy defeated his only Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, in Wisconsin and West Virginia, which had the only contested primary elections in 1960. The latter victory was particularly important because it came in a predominantly Protestant state and eased fears that existed within the party of nominating a Catholic. Following it, Kennedy won a string of primaries, but Humphrey had withdrawn and none of Kennedy's potential opponents, Johnson, Symington, or Stevenson, had declared their candidacies. Because of their followings and because of the presence of favorite sons, Kennedy received the required majority for the nomination only as the first alphabetical roll call reached Wyoming, the last state to be called.
Kennedy chose Johnson as his running mate. Johnson had finished second in the balloting and was the overwhelming choice of the South. No Democrat had ever been elected president without carrying the South, and Eisenhower had made significant inroads in that region, so a lot of political history sustained Kennedy's selection of Johnson. Other factors also influenced Kennedy's thinking, including his respect for Johnson's abilities, on the one hand, and his desire not to have Johnson as Senate majority leader should he be elected president, on the other.
The general election pitted Kennedy against Nixon, who held a narrow lead in early public opinion polls. Both men stumped the country energetically, but television played a more important role than ever before. A series of four televised debates drew an enormous audience, especially the first debate, which an estimated 70 million adults watched. Neither man was the clear victor in the debates, but Nixon in a sense was the loser, for his campaign had stressed his advantage over Kennedy in experience and through the debates Kennedy established himself as Nixon's equal. Kennedy was relaxed, handsome, good-humored, and gracious. In a distinct Boston accent, he spoke in cool, rational tones that were well suited to the television medium. Matters of tone and personality seemed to separate the candidates in 1960 more than the issues did.
But even if Kennedy and Nixon were not far apart on substance, the differences between them were nonetheless real, as in the case of civil rights, the most politically sensitive issue they faced. In part through his selection of Johnson, Kennedy reassured white southerners that he was reasonable and moderate on civil rights and that he was not likely to rein-stitute a hated Reconstruction. Simultaneously, he promised blacks a wide range of presidential action on their behalf, demonstrated sensitivity to their concerns, and appealed to them on economic grounds. By contrast, Nixon made little effort to win black votes. Instead, he concentrated on the white South, though he did not go far enough in repudiating civil rights activism by the federal government to assure his success there. On election day, Kennedy kept the South quite solidly Democratic and captured a high percentage of black votes nationwide, which made a critical difference in several states, including two in the South.
The election was so close that any one of a variety of different groups and tactics may be said to have determined the outcome. With a popular vote of 34.2 million, Kennedy won by fewer than 120,000 votes out of nearly 70 million cast. His margin in the Electoral College, 303–219, was more comfortable, yet it rested on thin majorities in a dozen states. Had fewer than 12,000 people in five states switched their votes, Nixon would have had an electoral majority. Anti-Catholic sentiment was less overt than in 1928, but postelection analyses by political scientists revealed its continued vitality in the polling booth. In fact, religion was the single most important factor in determining the closeness of the election. Kennedy's church membership won back many disaffected Catholic Democrats, but it lost him a substantially larger number of Protestant Democrats, who apparently were not reassured either by his record of independence from papal influence or by his unequivocal endorsement of the principle of church-state separation. Kennedy's adherence to that principle as president—indeed, he was decidedly less prone to mix religion and government than were several recent Protestant presidents—appeared to quiet anti-Catholic fears. Because no Catholic has received a major-party nomination for president since Kennedy, it is impossible to know how much voting behavior has changed in this regard.
The congressional results likewise constituted less than a ringing endorsement of Kennedy's plan to get the country moving again. For the first time in the twentieth century, the party winning the presidency failed to gain seats in the Congress. The Democrats lost 2 Senate and 21 House seats. This still gave them substantial paper majorities (65–35 in the Senate and 262–174 in the House), but since a conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats had effectively thwarted much liberal legislation in 1959 and 1960, when the majorities were larger, the new numbers did not bode well for legislative activism.