The 1960 presidential election could easily have turned out differently. Despite Teddy White's bestselling classic, Making of the President 1960, which made John Kennedy's election appear inevitable, like DESTINY, the truth is that JFK won by just one tenth of one percentage point (0.1%), or less than one vote per precinct. It was the closest election of the 20th century. Kennedy won the popular vote by just 112,827.
There were allegations of voter fraud in Illinois, which Kennedy carried by just 8,858 votes, and Texas, where Kennedy beat Nixon by just 2% -- 51% to 49%. But Kennedy only needed one of those states to reach the magic 270 electoral votes, and Illinois had voted Democratic in every election since 1932 except for Eisenhower. Furthermore, voter "irregularities" in southern Illinois, which was controlled by the Republican Party, may have offset fraud in the city of Chicago by the forces of "boss" Mayor Richard Daley.
Even so, the 1960 election turned on a hair:
1. If Kennedy had not chosen Lyndon Johnson of Texas as his running mate, he probably would not have carried Texas. Robert Kennedy opposed Johnson's selection, and at the Democratic Convention tried to talk LBJ out of declining the offer. Up until the last minute, JFK considered as a running mate, Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, a state JFK carried (without Symington on the ticket) by just 10,000 votes, 50.2% to 49.7%. In short, Symington would not have added the electoral votes that Johnson did.
2. If Nixon had not chosen Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. of Massachusetts as his running mate, he might have won the election. He selected Lodge because he thought the choice would distract Kennedy and force him to campaign in his home state of Massachusetts. It did not. Lodge also may have cost Nixon crucial votes the South, especially Texas, by promising (without the vice president's approval) that Nixon would appoint at least one African American to the cabinet, thereby neutralizing the issue of which ticket was more pro-civil rights. If Nixon had instead selected Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York or William Scranton of Pennsylvania, he probably could have won at least one northeastern state, and hence, the election. Rockefeller declined Nixon's offer to join the ticket, having served as New York governor for only two years at that point.
3. If Nixon had not injured his knee in North Carolina, which forced him to stop campaigning for two weeks in the fall, he might have won the election.
4. If Nixon had not made a naive pledge to campaign in all 50 states, wasting valuable time on states he had no chance of winning and states that he was going to win no matter what, he might have won.
5. If at the end of the campaign, Robert Kennedy had not intervened on behalf of Martin Luther King Jr., calling a judge in Georgia and urging him to release King from jail for a minor traffic violation, Kennedy might not have won the election. Ironically, RFK's decision was not a strategic political calculation, but an impulsive decision based on moral instinct, as Evan Thomas pointed out in a biography of Kennedy. After Bobby's decision, Martin Luther King, Sr., an influential Baptist minister, announced that he was switching his vote from Nixon to Kennedy. (King Sr. had initially opposed JFK because he feared Kennedy as a Catholic would take orders from the Pope. "Can you imagine -- Martin Luther King's father's a bigot?" Robert Kennedy said to his brother. JFK retorted: "Bobby, we all have our fathers," an apparent reference to their own father's reputation for anti-semitism.
- Was Nixon Robbed in 1960? David Greenberg in Slate magazine.