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.