[Nov. 8, 1960] Across the Finish Line (the 1960 Presidential Election results)

At long last, the contest is over.  Not since the 1876 clash between Hayes and Tilden for this nation’s highest office have the results been this close; it was not until this morning that anyone could really be sure who would be taking possession of the Oval Office in January 1961.

In fact, as I took in a late lunch yesterday, the big IBM computer at CBS had already predicted a Nixon win with overwhelming confidence.  This was an artifact of the flow of voting in this country: the day belongs to the Republican voter–it is only when the Democratic voter clocks out of his urban, blue-collar job that the tide begins to shift. 

By dinnertime, CBS’ big brain had switched opinions based on the torrent of Kennedy votes streaming in from the Northeastern seaboard and the big Eastern cities.  New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago all threw the balance of their support for the Democratic candidate.  Just as the tide was cresting, President Eisenhower took to the airwaves exhorting me and my fellow West-Coasters not to give up the fight (the message was lost on me, of course; I’d voted that morning). 

Because the contest was not yet over.  The Senator from Massachusetts had acquired a hefty lead, but it was slowly eroded as the night went on.  When the polls closed in California, it became clear fairly quickly that the Union’s second largest state was still undecided.  The Los Angelinos had not followed the example of the other big cities, their ardor for Kennedy moderated by their fondness for native son Nixon.  By midnight Pacific Time, when I decided to turn in (I still had work the next day, after all), the fate of the presidency rested on four states: Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, and California.

It was all over when I turned on the news at around 8.  Kennedy had won Minnesota.  California and Illinois canceled each other out.  Michigan had gone Democratic at around 3 AM, putting a seal on the event.  When all was said and done, the national margin was only about 100,000 votes, barely .1% of the electorate.  At first blush, this result flies in the face of the wild enthusiasm that greeted Kennedy wherever he toured.  But elections in this country are not dictated by the mob, and Nixon’s supporters were bound to be more “conservative” in their exuberance.

I’m still processing this victory in my thoughts and feelings.  A year ago, the Vice President seemed a shoe-in.  All he had to do was ride the coattails of Eisenhower prosperity.  Senator Kennedy was too untested, too highfalutin to be a winner.  And yet, after the TV debates, no one could argue that Jack Kennedy wasn’t ready for the Big Leagues.  Nixon’s tone became more bitter and defensive.  It was hard to imagine this angry man carrying on the tradition of his gentle, moderate predecessor.  Despite this, both men fought with tenacity to the very end, and the outcome was never certain until it was upon us.

And so the 1960 election ends with the country divided sharply, not just demographically, but physically.  Nixon swept the West and Appalachia.  Kennedy won the Northeast and South.  Yet, it is a testament to how far we’ve come since the election just a century ago that the losing half of the populace will not riot or secede.  In two months, they will give their respect and reverence (though perhaps with a modicum of grumbling) to the new President. 

The burgeoning Space Race, decolonization, Communist expansionism, and desegregation are going to be the volatile issues of the 1960s.  Let’s all hope that President Kennedy, whether he’s in the White House for four or eight years, will be up to tackling them.

10 thoughts on “[Nov. 8, 1960] Across the Finish Line (the 1960 Presidential Election results)”

  1. I *said* Nixon ought not to have done those last two TV debates…

    He’s been a Congressman, a Senator, and a Vice President.  When a Congressman or Senator makes a try for the Oval Office they can usually fall back to their old job.  (makes me wonder how good a job they’re doing with all the campaigning, but that’s another question…)

    There’s no Vice Presidency to go back to.  Nixon is going to be out of the electocracy until the next general election, even if he decides to seek public office once more.

    1. Ike even suggested Dick take a Cabinet post in ’56 so he’d be better positioned to run for President.  I don’t think that’s what did him in, though.  It’s not like Nixon was an unknown.

  2. Thank you for this engrossing description of Election Night. It sounds as if television might very well have turned the trick, after.

  3. Note the electoral votes that went to die-hard segregationist Byrd in the Deep South.  The Dixiecrats are a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party.  The struggle for civil rights threatens to tear the party apart.

  4. We’re already seeing the Democratic Party putting the major part of its efforts into the high-density urban North and West, trying for more national electoral votes.  There’s a growing feeling that after more than a hundred years, they’re taking their traditional power base for granted.  Certainly, a large number of solid Democrats here are unhappy that the Party is so actively courting our traditional enemies.

    The Boston/New York axis uses the name “Democrat”, but they’re an entirely different sort of “Democrat” with no demographic overlap with the South.  The Yankees infiltrated the party some decades ago and took control , and they’ve been changing it into something the Southerners don’t much like.

    The Yankee Democratic Party operates on a patronage system that is alien and repugnant to the Southerners.  If Kennedy stuffs his appointments with Yankees, there will be trouble.

    A few people have already been pointing at Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia, where Nixon’s wins were unexpected and unwelcome. That’s a sign of deep trouble in the Democratic Party, not a lean toward the Republicans.

    1964 is going to be *very* interesting… Kennedy will almost certainly try for a second term.  The RNC’s decision to run Nixon this time was unexpected, as we discussed earlier…  I expect they’ll decide he is tainted as a loser and try Lodge or Dirksen.

  5. I expect we’ll see a few recounts, but I doubt anything will be enough to flip the election back to the Vice President.

    I agree with TRX that the parties, especially the Democrats, seem to be in flux right now. The Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic party have been in conflict going back to well before the Civil War. Simple demographics have given the Northerners more weight. I don’t know where the Southern Democrats will go, though. I don’t really see a place for them in the Republican party. The Dixiecrats could rise again, but that would just reduce the political power of the South even further. Perhaps the “New South” will be able to bring Southern Democrats more into line with the North.

    As for the Republicans, the question is which way they will tilt as the result of a loss. Will it be the liberal Rockefeller Republicans or the conservatives who come to the fore. (I figure the country club Republicans will just sit back and fund whoever comes out on top.)

    Kennedy is certain to run again in ’64 unless the next four years are an unmitigated disaster. By then, we’ll have a much better idea how he handles being the leader of the free world. At this point, I choose to be optimistic.

  6. It will be interesting to see what Nixon does now. Go back to the Senate? Run for governor of California? Join a Wall Street firm and make the $ so that Pat can finally get a new coat and the kids a new dog?

    Whatever he does, I doubt we’ve seen the last of him.

  7. I’d lay my money on Wall Street, or maybe the lobby industry. Nixon isn’t exactly living in a cardboard box under a bridge, but he doesn’t have anything like the income (or trust fund) most of the people in his political class can fall back on.  Even if he decides to continue in politics somehow, it will be years before anything higher than “county commissioner” comes up for election.

    As an outside chance – reportedly, Nixon and Kennedy had a long conference in Florida shortly after Kennedy won, and Nixon pressed Kennedy to follow up on his (Nixon’s) plan to open diplomatic relations with Communist China.  I must confess I don’t understand his reasoning there – besides Nixon’s career being based on anti-Communism, the United States foreign policy asserts that the only Chinese state is the one based in Taipei on Taiwan – a nation we helped to create.  The Taiwanese get upset every time the issue comes up.  And Taiwan, as a member of SEATO, they’re also a military partner of the USA.  But… if Nixon manages to persuade JFK of his reasoning, he might wind up as the first US ambassador to the People’s Republic of China.

    Sometimes I wonder if I should even bother to read science fiction.  The Real World seems to get plenty strange every now and then…

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