By May 1960, John F. Kennedy seemed to be the early favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination, but Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert H. Humphrey, and Adlai Stevenson all remained strong potential rivals. The West Virginia primary, held on May 10, 1960, proved to be a decisive battleground in the race. Kennedy, who had not faced serious opposition in the other primaries, suddenly faced a serious challenge from Hubert Humphrey, the junior senator from Minnesota. In order to secure his party's nomination, Kennedy had to win West Virginia's delegates. Losing would effectively take the decision off the convention floor and throw it into the hands of the Democratic Party's powerful urban bosses, a development JFK was anxious to avoid because they would favor more seasoned party elders.
In 1958, when Kennedy had commissioned Louis Harris to poll West Virginia voters to see how he would fare running against Richard Nixon, he led his Republican opponent by fourteen points. Cheered by this hypothetical victory, he set up what journalist Theodore White called "a shadow operation" which, by 1959, had chairs in each county. Harris then polled West Virginia Democrats and reported that JFK led Humphrey seventy percent to thirty percent. Kennedy then decided that he had the votes he needed to carry the state and would not campaign actively there unless Humphrey entered the primary. Humphrey had made an early decision to compete with Kennedy for West Virginia, believing that his populist Midwestern background would appeal to voters in that state far more than JFK's polished Ivy League image. Although Humphrey had recently lost the Wisconsin primary, his prospects in West Virginia looked promising. At the same time, the Kennedy team remained confident that their candidate would trounce Humphrey, who could not even carry his next door state.
By early spring, the issue of Kennedy's religion had entered the electoral discussion, splitting the Wisconsin vote along religious lines and resulting in a steady erosion of support in West Virginia. Four weeks before West Virginia primary day, the tide had turned against JFK and he found himself trailing Humphrey by 20 points. When the campaign asked the county chairs why the voters had switched allegiance, they replied, "No one know you were a Catholic" when the poll was taken. Kennedy responded by moving his key campaign aides to West Virginia, calling on close friends to volunteer their time, and training county campaign chairs in 39 of the state's 59 counties to staff phone banks, host receptions, and go door to door to distribute literature. He changed his schedule to campaign throughout the state and brought Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. there to endorse his candidacy. On April 25th he decided to attack the anti-Catholic bias head-on, telling audiences across the state, "I refuse to believe that I was denied the right to be President the day that I was baptized." Finally, on May 8th, two days before the election, in a broadcast paid for by the campaign, FDR, Jr. asked JFK how his Catholicism would effect his presidency. Kennedy replied that taking the oath of office required swearing on the Bible that the president would defend separation of church and state and that any candidate that violated this oath not only violated the Constitution but "sinned against God."
In framing the issue as one of tolerance versus intolerance, Kennedy appealed to West Virginia's long-held revulsion for prejudice; placed Humphrey, who had championed tolerance his entire career, on the defensive; and attacked him with a vengeance. Humphrey, who was short on funds, could not match the well-financed Kennedy operation. Kennedy defeated his rival soundly, winning 60.8 percent of the vote. That evening, Humphrey announced that he was no longer a candidate for the presidency. Kennedy knew the nomination was his if he could hold his delegates together once they reached the convention.
Sources: Theodore White, The Making of the President 1960 (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1988), pp. 97-114; Carl Solberg, Hubert Humphrey: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984), pp. 199-213.
Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .
For more information, visit The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers home page at https://erpapers.columbian.gwu.edu/.
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