There are several reasons for this. The 1960 presidential election was the first in which television can fairly be said to have been central to the result. By that year, most American homes had TVs for the first time. Richard Nixon’s decision to accept John Kennedy’s proposal for televised presidential debates meant that for the first time both major-party candidates appeared for a sustained period together on TV once it had become the nation’s dominant medium of mass communication. The novelty of this in 1960 produced very high rates of viewership, thereby making the election memorable and altering its outcome. Simply put, this form of “free media” provided the oxygen for Kennedy’s presidential bid that fall. Before the first televised presidential debate on September 26, most polls showed him behind. After it, most showed him ahead, a pattern that continued through Election Day.
A second reason for the excitement then and interest later was the simple fact of Kennedy’s Catholicism, which broke an unofficial but still very significant “rule” of the American political system as it was in those days. Until Kennedy won in 1960, the sense of most knowledgeable people was that only a white, male, Protestant could realistically aspire to serve as the head of the American government. Even many of Kennedy’s liberal supporters firmly believed that, such as United Auto Workers union chief Walter Reuther, who had argued passionately during the 1960 primaries that no Catholic could be elected because anti-Catholic prejudice among Baptist and Methodist Democrats was too strong. A lot of older American Catholics with bad memories of Al Smith’s presidential campaign in 1928 felt the same way. All that earlier effort had seemingly accomplished was to stir up anti-Catholic sentiment to no positive result; why go through the same thing all over again, many of them thought to themselves, and sometimes said out loud. For Kennedy’s Catholic supporters in particular, the real “Massachusetts miracle” was not that state’s economic comeback in the 1980s but rather Kennedy’s victory in 1960, which altered assumptions about who could realistically hope to hold high public office in the United States and paved the way for the next person who was not a white, male, Protestant to win: Barack Obama in 2008.
A third reason for the continuing scholarly interest in the presidential election of 1960, closely related to the TV and Catholicism factors, was that the outcome was an upset. Until the televised debates, most knowledgeable observers of the American political scene had assumed that Nixon would ultimately prevail. Yes, Kennedy was young, handsome, well-spoken and had a lot of family money behind him, the pundits acknowledged. For those reasons, he would make the contest interesting, it was quietly thought, but in the end come up short, thanks to the extraordinarily broad popularity of Eisenhower-era Republicanism, with which Nixon and his running mate (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge) were closely identified. Thus, as the 1960s opened, the prevailing view among the experts was that Republicans would retain the White House and the country probably would not change very much. Kennedy’s surprising victory helped alter that situation.
This also brings up the closeness of this race as well as the high voter turnout:
That electoral contest was truly remarkable in that it was both the closest of the twentieth century and the one with the highest turnout ever. Kennedy’s margin of victory in the popular vote worked out to an average of one half of one vote per precinct nationwide, which is as close to a tie as we are likely ever to see. Even more striking was the high turnout. The most meaningful measure is the fraction of the adult population that cast ballots, and in 1960 that figure was the highest ever recorded. The national average was approximately 63.5 percent, but that figure is misleading in one important respect. On Election Day in 1960, the Jim Crow system still existed in the South and the Border States. That system’s barriers to voting (poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation and all the rest) seriously depressed voting in at least fifteen states. In the other thirty-five, however, turnout was typically well above the national average. For example, in Franklin County, Ohio (where this commentary was written and published), the home of the state’s capital city (Columbus), voter registration as a percentage of all adults reached an all-time high in 1960, as did turnout: an astonishing 83 percent of all registered voters.
The closeness of the election combined with the record turnout to put the maximum possible strain on the nation’s electoral apparatus, and ultimately led to problems in election administration. Those problems have also fueled continuing scholarly interest in the 1960 presidential election because of the difficulty in determining whether Kennedy really won through honest means or corrupt ones. Excessive partisanship on both sides has complicated that analysis. The first account of the election, Theodore White’s classic entitled The Making of the President 1960 (New York: Atheneum, 1961) was written by a Kennedy partisan. The second account, the part of Richard Nixon’s memoir entitled Six Crises (Garden City: Doubleday, 1962) that dealt with the election, was even more biased in favor of Nixon. Those two accounts helped create a partisan kind of debate on a serious issue, which has clouded clear thinking ever since.
Scholarly analysis of the question of how Kennedy won has focused, quite rightly, on administration of the electoral process in two crucial states: Illinois and Texas. Kennedy ultimately was credited with the electoral votes of both, which gave him victory in the Electoral College tally. The problem with answering the question of how he prevailed there is twofold in nature. In Illinois, the most recent and fair-minded study (Kallina’s Kennedy v. Nixon) concludes that sufficient evidence does not exist to determine whether Chicago’s Democratic machine stole more votes there than Republicans did downstate. Texas presents a different kind of problem. A system of free and fair elections in the modern sense had not yet taken hold on the ground there in 1960. Voter fraud was fairly common, safeguards to prevent it were few, and 1960 was no different in those respects. Thus, the most dispassionate analysis of this issue from the perspective of fifty years later is that we will never know whether Kennedy really “won,” in the sense of what result an entirely honest and effective administration of the electoral process in Illinois and Texas would have produced on Election Day in 1960.