It was 56 years ago today that John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States in a bitter contest against the incumbent Vice President, Richard Nixon. It was one of the closest elections in American history, and some people still doubt its outcome.
The New York Times called the election for then-Senator Kennedy just before midnight on November 8, 1960. NBC News didn’t call the race until 7 a.m. the following morning. All night, the newly empowered national television networks had forecast that Kennedy was leading, but in a race that was too close to call.
In 1990, the late John Chancellor recalled the chaos at times at NBC, when the network was relying on new computer technology to decide the winner.
“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.’”
Kennedy’s rise in politics began at a young age. In 1946, he ran for the House of Representatives at the age of 29 and won. His older brother had been expected to be the family’s political standard bearer, but he was killed in action during World War II.
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. Health problems did keep Kennedy from attending Congress for some periods.
The race between Kennedy and Nixon had been close all fall. The candidates were tied in a late August Gallup poll, and Kennedy took a three-point lead after his historic TV debate performances. But Nixon gained momentum heading into Election Day, and he cut Kennedy’s lead to one percentage point in a poll taken four days before the election.
Kennedy defeated Nixon when votes were finally counted in the Electoral College, by a margin of 303 to 219. But in the popular vote, Kennedy won by just 112,000 votes out of 68 million cast, or a margin on 0.2 percent.
So arguments persist to this day about vote-counting in two states, specifically Illinois (where Kennedy won by 9,000 votes) and Texas (where Kennedy won by 46,000 votes). If Nixon had 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.)
In later years, Nixon also claimed in an autobiography that widespread fraud happened in Illinois and Texas during the 1960 election.
However, despite Nixon’s requests and decisions to not ask for a recount, the Republican Party had other ideas. In 2000, historian David Greenberg recounted the GOP’s efforts to contest the election in an article for Slate.
Greenberg said it was Mazo who helped to publicize the idea that voter fraud cost Nixon the election, and that Republican officials pursued recounts and investigations in 11 states. In the end, Nixon wound up losing the state of Hawaii to Kennedy after the recounts.
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.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.