One of the losers in the 2016 presidential election has been careful historical analysis. Easy and quick comparisons and conclusions drawn by media commentators have trampled on the subtleties and complications of previous presidential election results, especially the relatively recent ones. Donald Trump has said (in various ways) that the 2016 election is already rigged and that he will not automatically concede if Hillary Clinton wins. Many journalists have jumped on the idea that Trump is being unprecedentedly petulant even before election day, and that no presidential candidate from a respectable party in history has refused to concede an election once the votes are all in, tallied, and certified. As the most obvious example, they cite that Republican Richard Nixon graciously conceded the ultra-close presidential election of 1960 to John Kennedy, even though there were suspicions of vote-rigging in some states.
Everyone knew the 1960 race was going to be close. The candidates were not that different in terms of political ideology, age, and experience. In fact, they had very similar backgrounds. Both were World War II Navy veterans. Both entered Congress in 1946. Nixon was elected to the Senate in 1950, JFK in 1952 (the same year that Nixon was picked as Eisenhower’s vice-presidential candidate). Their political differences were mostly a matter of degree. Both were vigorous anti-communists. And both generally agreed with the gradual expansion of government involvement in the economy. Their only real policy disagreement was over civil rights. Nixon was more of a gradualist who thought civil rights should evolve as public opinion changed over the years. JFK was in favor of government intervention in civil rights matters, but only when it was necessary (such as in the stubborn refusal of some states and localities to integrate public schools). And, finally, either man would have been the youngest elected president in American history after the results of the 1960 election were finalized.
What happened on election day, November 8, 1960? Senator Kennedy gained 34,220,984 votes nationwide (49.72%). Vice-President Nixon received 34,108,157 votes (49.55%). The raw number difference was 112,827 votes, and the percentage difference was only 0.17%, less (indeed, much less) than 1%. Kennedy’s victory in the electoral college (which is technically what matters in electing a president) was much greater. He received 303 electoral college votes, and Nixon received 219.
On the night of Tuesday, November 8th, and well past midnight into the early hours of the 9th, the country watched the votes come in and be reported over the national media. Kennedy seemed to be clearly winning early on. Some television news reports had him winning by 52-48% with well over 350 electoral college votes. But as western states and more rural electoral areas of the country started to report their vote totals after midnight, the race tightened considerably. Still, Kennedy looked to be heading for victory, even if it was a slim one.
At 4 a.m., at campaign headquarters in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Vice-President Nixon gave the following statement to his election team and supporters in front of the campaign’s big chalk board tallying the results. Here is what he said:
“As I look at the board here, while there are still some results still to come in, if the present trend continues, Mr. Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, will be the next president of the United States. I want Senator Kennedy to know, and I want all of you to know, that certainly if this trend does continue, and he does become our next president, that he will have my wholehearted support and yours too.”
Nixon heavily qualified this statement by saying, twice, that “if” the voting trend continued, Kennedy would win the election. This was not a direct concession of the election, as NBC’s famous duo of respected rewscasters, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, said in their immediate reaction to Nixon’s statement that night. They essentially said they didn’t know whether Nixon had conceded or not.
It wasn’t until the afternoon of November 9th that Nixon sent JFK a telegram more or less conceding the election. Kennedy accepted it, as well as good wishes from Eisenhower, the sitting president. It would seem to us that this was the end of it, but, as you know, the historians here at the Institute are tireless in their efforts to examine the history of these events as completely as we can.
Nixon’s telegram of November 9th certainly gives the impression that his concession was delayed by the closeness of the race, but that he accepted the finality of the nation’s decision by the afternoon after the election. But if we only look at those public statements, we get an overly shallow view of what happened in November 1960. A more careful examination of the full history of the days (which was heavily reported in reputable newspapers and other sources at the time), shows a much more complicated and contested picture.
Essentially what happened was this. Beneath the calm (-ish) surface at Nixon headquarters in Los Angeles on election night, the Republican National Committee was frantically trying to understand how Nixon could have lost. And, at the same time, they were getting lots of anecdotal reports that votes had been bought or stolen or faked in Illinois and in Texas. The power and influence of Democratic mayor Richard Daley and his political machine was rumored to have “fixed” the vote for Kennedy in Chicago. Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s running mate, was suspected of rigging the vote in important parts of Texas (both states had gone for Kennedy).
Throughout November, Republican operatives and fellow politicians urged Nixon to contest the election. This was more or less obvious at the time because the press reported the Republican investigations of vote counts in many precincts of Cook County (Chicago) and in some districts in suburban Houston and Dallas in Texas. It is also clear that President Eisenhower initially urged Nixon to mount legal challenges in several states, although he quickly changed his mind and argued for a full concession. Other prominent Republicans, such as Senator (and RNC Chairman) Thurston Morton from Kentucky, as well as the majority of the upper-echelons of Nixon’s campaign staff, pressed for legal challenges to the electoral results in many states.
Some of the legal challenges went ahead and grand juries in certain localities agreed to investigate potential election fraud. The investigation in Chicago revealed that 943 Republican votes had not been counted, but that wasn’t close to enough to overturn Kennedy’s majority state-wide (which was, roughly, 9,000 votes). Similar minor differences were shown in some Texas electoral districts. Republicans mounted appeals to higher courts but they were all dismissed for lack of evidence of fraud or vote-rigging.
But the Republican National Committee continued to fight for a recount up until the Electoral College certified Kennedy’s election on December 19th.
Nixon, wisely, gave the public appearance that he was above the fray and that he was not in favor of contesting the election. Further, Nixon’s subsequent interviews and memoirs claimed that Eisenhower kept urging him to challenge the result, and that Nixon himself did not approve of the RNC’s efforts to fight the election in the courts. This version of the story has not only won the day in the public mind, it’s also been accepted, repeated, and retailed by popular historians and media talking heads ever since.
Excellent work done by lots of historians (especially David Greenberg at Rutgers) has shown that Nixon not only allowed the RNC to continue its extensive investigations in eleven states, he was in favor of challenging the result until it became too obvious that a challenge wouldn’t work. That’s right, Buzzkillers, Illinois and Texas weren’t the only states that were investigated. The RNC looked into these states as well: Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.
The Republican challenge was extensive, even though it only lasted six weeks. But it was precisely because the Republicans, like all modern political parties, had enough operatives to mount challenges on the ground at local election boards and in courts in many states, that Nixon could maintain the image that didn’t have to sully himself with contesting the election and looking like a sore loser.
But that, of course, sharpens the point that there was a public Nixon response to the election and a private Nixon/Republican response to the election. Naturally, if there had been reliable evidence of voter fraud (or ballot counting errors) as November and December rolled along, the qualified nature of Nixon’s concession statements right after the election would have given him the genuine cover he needed to contest the election personally. And he had every rational reason to reserve that right even if he hadn’t been so careful in choosing his words. After all, the voters decide who wins democratic elections. One candidate “conceding” an election to another candidate isn’t the official end to the election. The final and official vote tally is.
Even that’s not the end of this story, Buzzkillers. We spend a lot of time at the Institute (and on these episodes) examining the motivations and private action politicians and other actors on the historical stage). We find that, like everybody else, what they often say or do publicly is sometimes a lot different than what they say or do privately. (And one of the most responsible things historians can do is point this out, in an attempt to encourage people think think more carefully before canonizing historical figures.)
But I want to complicate things even more. As we know, although there was a great deal of scrambling, grousing, second-guessing, scheming and, undoubtedly, cursing behind the scenes on election night in 1960, it’s worth remembering that the public statements of both candidates in the aftermath of the election were cordial, formal, and fundamentally decent. On the public level in 1960, there was none of the extreme, inflammatory political rhetoric about the system being rigged that we hear too often nowadays. And there is precious little evidence from 1960 of the “if so-and-so wins I’m moving to Canada” sentiment we’ve been subjected to every presidential election for the last twenty years or so.
Perhaps there was (and is) a place for recognizing the value of the grown-up and measured tone of the public statements made by Nixon, Eisenhower, and Kennedy in November 1960. Perhaps it took the enough of the edge off that close election result to prevent tempers from getting out of control. And perhaps we should be reminded of that more often.
Another example of this moderate tone can be found in the continuation of the remarks that Kennedy made during the afternoon of November 9th, after he accepted the public best wishes of Nixon and Eisenhower. JFK wasn’t overly-triumphant (not surprising, since result was so close), but his statement was measured in other ways too. Rather than crowing, or promising rosy days ahead, Kennedy stressed reality, hardship, and the challenges facing the country in the 1960s.
Avoiding dire and childish predictions for the future, and toning down the technicolor extremes of our political rhetoric might make our current elections less exciting on the public level. But it also might be enough to convince many of us to act like grown-ups again. And there’s certainly something to be said for that.