On this day in 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon in one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history. At 43, Kennedy became the youngest person ever elected to the presidency.
Kennedy won 49.7 percent of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.5 percent. Kennedy captured only 112,827 more votes than Nixon out of more than 68 million votes cast. The Electoral College awarded the election to Kennedy 303-219, the closest since 1916. Kennedy razor-thin victories in Illinois and Texas made the difference.
Though both candidates took a moderate stance on nearly every policy issue, they came from different backgrounds. Kennedy, a wealthy Irish-American, had graduated from prep schools and Harvard. Despite having served nearly eight years as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon portrayed himself as an average American who grew up poor in California and worked his way through Whittier College.
There were some similarities, however. During World War II, both Kennedy and Nixon served as junior naval officers in the Pacific. And both began their political careers in the House before moving to the Senate.
Some historians assert that the outcome hinged on the first of four televised debates, watched by an estimated 70 million people. While Kennedy had rested at his family’s Florida compound, Nixon, having promised to visit every state during his campaign, maintained a hectic campaign schedule.
As a result, a tan Kennedy appeared relaxed on the nation’s black-and-white TV screens while Nixon, still recovering from a knee injury, seemed pale and worn under the hot TV lights. Polls revealed that most radio listeners thought Nixon was the better debater, while those who watched on TV favored Kennedy.
SOURCE: “THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT, 1960,” BY THEODORE WHITE (1961)
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