It was 57 years ago today that John F. Kennedy was elected in one of the closest – and most controversial – races in American history.
The bitter contest pitted the young but experienced Democratic Senator from Massachusetts against the incumbent Republican Vice President Richard Nixon.
Late into the night on Election Day, the newly emboldened television networks were reluctant to call the race for Kennedy. They had computers that were trying to calculate the race, and sometimes they got befuddled too. The late NBC journalist John Chancellor recalled the chaos the networks faced:
“I think it was about 2 in the morning Eastern time when we began to think Kennedy might pull it out, and then the computer, which was very cumbersome in those days, began to say ‘Kennedy wins, Kennedy wins,’” Chancellor told the Los Angeles Times.
“I found out later on it was after midnight Eastern time when the Nixon people began saying, ‘It looks pretty bad,’ and then the Kennedy people began to say, ‘Not so bad.’”
Despite his age, Kennedy was not a political neophyte. He was first elected to the House at age 29 in 1946. His brother was expected to be the family’s political standard bearer, but was killed in action in World War II.
John F. Kennedy was elected three times to the House and two times to the U.S. Senate before becoming president in 1961, and he had more national political experience than our two most recent presidents.
The race was close all year. The candidates were tied in an August Gallup poll. After the famous debates, Kennedy took a three-point lead, but Nixon cut that down heading into Election Day.
When the votes were finally counted, Kennedy took the Electoral College by 303 to 219 – not very close. But the popular vote was much closer: just 112,000 votes, or 0.2 percent.
There are arguments about vote counting in two states that rage to this day in Illinois, where Kennedy won by a slim 9,000 votes, and in Texas, where Kennedy won by 46,000 votes. If Nixon won those two states, he would have defeated Kennedy by two votes in the Electoral College.
That fact wasn’t lost on Nixon’s supporters, who urged the candidate to contest the results. At the time, Kennedy was also leading in the critical state of California, which was Nixon’s home state. But a count of absentee ballots gave Nixon the state several weeks later, after he conceded it to Kennedy.
In Illinois, there were rampant rumors that Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley used his political machine to stuff the ballot box in Cook County. Democrats charged the GOP with similar tactics in southern Illinois. Down in Texas, there were similar claims about the influence of Kennedy’s running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson, over that state’s election.
On Wednesday afternoon, November 9, 1960, Nixon officially conceded the election to Kennedy. He told his friend, journalist Earl Mazo, that “our country cannot afford the agony of a constitutional crisis.” (Mazo had written a series of articles about voter fraud after the 1960 election, which he stopped at Nixon’s request.)
Despite Nixon’s requests and decisions not to ask for a recount, Republican officials pursued just that, launching a recount in 11 states. When the votes were counted and the dust cleared, Kennedy still would have won – and picked up Hawaii, too.
But that doesn’t mean that Daley didn’t affect the outcome in Illinois.
“The GOP’s failure to prove fraud doesn’t mean, of course, that the election was clean. That question remains unsolved and unsolvable,” Greenberg said.
Another historian, Edmund Kallina, has conducted extensive research into a Chicago vote recount, and he concluded the discrepancies weren’t wide enough to decide the election. In a 2010 interview, Kallina said in the long run, the close election changed politics by forcing parties to focus on the Electoral College, while fueling partisanship at the same time.