America’s First Catholic President

The presidential campaign of 1960 was one of the most exciting in American history. Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon – two  attractive, talented, ambitious men, both in their forties and both World War II Navy veterans – crisscrossed the nation in search of votes. It was the first presidential campaign to utilize television extensively. Millions of Americans were able to see and hear the candidates, something that had never occurred before in our national history. The sound bite was invented. When it came to this new visual medium, Jack Kennedy and his organization outpaced, outspent, and outclassed the Nixon operation.

On November 8, 1960, election day, a record-breaking 64.5 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, and Kennedy was elected with 34.2-million votes (49.7 percent) to Nixon’s 34.1-million (49.6 percent). The electoral college broke 303 for JFK and 219 for Nixon.

Inner-city Catholic votes unquestionably provided Kennedy’s razor-thin margin of victory. As Theodore H. White, author of The Making of the President 1960, wrote: “There is no doubt that millions of Americans, Protestants and Catholics, voted in 1960 primordially out of instinct [and kinship].” Out of pride, 67 percent of Catholics, who had supported the Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, swung back to the Democrat Kennedy and boosted his total share of the Catholic vote to over 70 percent. Kennedy received about 70 percent of the Italian vote, 66 percent of the Polish, 68 percent of the Irish, and 50 percent of the German Catholic vote.

The results also proved that a significant number of Protestants had voted against Kennedy because of his religion. In fact, JFK was the first man elected president who did not receive a majority of the Protestant vote. IBM political analysts peg Kennedy’s Protestant support at 46 percent while Gallup puts it at 38 percent. It is estimated that 4.5 million Protestant Democrats (mostly in the South) crossed party lines and voted for Nixon. This was evident in the fact that Nixon’s Southern vote totals were actually higher than Ike’s had been in 1956. Nixon managed to carry Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and he came within 1 percent of carrying Texas, South Carolina, and Missouri. Kennedy’s Southern numbers lagged behind Adlai Stevenson’s, even as JFK ran 10 percent ahead of Stevenson in the Northeast.

Nixon’s huge majorities in Iowa, Nebraska, and in North and South Dakota – once William Jennings Bryan country – were largely the result of Protestant distaste for Kennedy. Results there were similar to those in Milton County, Kentucky, where religious solidarity was most evident: in four Protestant precincts, Nixon received 65 percent of the vote, and in five Catholic precincts, Kennedy garnered 88 percent. The University of Michigan Survey concluded that “American Protestants were remarkably preoccupied by the fact that Kennedy was a Catholic.” But then, to be fair, so were Catholics.

              The 1960 presidential debate: The Catholic, left, the Protestant, right, with moderator Howard K. Smith

Jack Kennedy was saved by the urban vote in the electoral-rich states of the Northeast and Midwest. In these regions, he carried 78 percent of the Catholic vote, 70 percent of the African-American vote, and 80 percent of the Jewish vote. After reviewing the inner-city vote tallies, pollster Elmo Roper concluded: “If there was a victim of religious prejudice it was Nixon more than Kennedy. All but one of the states most heavily populated by Catholics went for Kennedy.”

In New York state, Kennedy’s total was 52.6 percent. If it were not for the huge Catholic turnout in New York City, where JFK received 62.8 percent, and in Buffalo (64.9 percent), he would have lost the Empire State’s forty-five electoral votes, which comprised 15 percent of his total. The situation was the same in other key Kennedy states:

Kennedy Results 
27 Electoral Votes
16 Electoral Votes
New Jersey
32 Electoral Votes
20 Electoral Votes
St. Louis
13 Electoral Votes

Political analyst Michael Barone, who knows the electoral landscape perhaps better than anyone now alive, concludes that “these figures provide the firmest possible evidence for the irrefutable argument that the 1960 election split the nation along religious, which is to say cultural lines, not along lines of economic class.” Put another way: Kennedy’s election was not a victory for liberalism, it was a victory for Catholicism.

We have recently had a discussion among Catholics about what Kennedy’s Houston speech to a group of Protestant pastors – also fifty years in the past – meant to the longer-term position of the Church in America. Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has brilliantly argued that Kennedy gave away the store and badly misrepresented the Catholic view of the right relationship of religion and politics. That is quite true. But for Catholics, there’s also something worth noting in the fact that, half a century ago, for the first time, it became possible in America for a Catholic to become president. That achievement has not been repeated. (Who wants the kind of “Catholic” that John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, or Joe Biden represent?) Still, we should remember that the door is now open in ways that, in the not-so-distant past, would simply not have been possible in an America marred by anti-Catholic bigotry.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.