[75 years ago this week, Dewey didn’t defeat Truman—but the 1948 election was close and contested enough that one newspaper famously reported he did. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that election and a few other hotly contested ones (not including 2020, because it really wasn’t), leading up to a special Guest Post from an FSU alum and talented young journalist who would never get it so wrong!]
On two clear and important factors in one of our closest elections ever, and one significantly more ambiguous but perhaps even more meaningful one.
1) TV: I ended yesterday’s post on the 1948 election with a comparison to the role of TV specifically and mass media more generally in 1960, which is often seen as the first truly modern election as a result of that influence. As those three hyperlinked articles (and the many others I could have included) reflect, this is a factor that has been very thoroughly explored, and for good reason: it’s difficult to overstate how much TV and mass media have shifted our politics, and continue to do so even in the age of the internet (which is of course its own form of mass media). I don’t have a great deal to add to all those voices, but will say that I wrote a good bit in my recent book Of Thee I Sing about the “Camelot” mythos around the Kennedy administration as an exemplification of celebratory patriotism, and that whole narrative was deeply intertwined with Kennedy’s boyish good looks and media-friendly charm.
2) Johnson: Kennedy’s TV appearances (in both senses of the word) unquestionably influenced such narratives, and likely brought folks out to vote as a result. But in American presidential elections voting matters more in a state-by-state way than an individual voter way, and to my mind the single biggest influence on state voting patterns in the 1960 election was Kennedy’s choice for a running mate: Texas Senator and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson. It’s not just that Johnson was a masterful party leader and political negotiator, although those roles were never more crucial than in such a tightly contested election. It’s also that the Dixiecrat revolt about which I wrote in yesterday’s post had only continued and deepened, and without a VP who could truly bring in Southern Democrats there’s no way Kennedy would have won the electoral votes of the majority of the Southern states. Like Lincoln’s VP choice Andrew Johnson, similarly chosen for strategic reasons, this one also became president himself due to a tragic assassination—but that’s a story for another post.
3) Religion: The combination of Kennedy on TV and Johnson on the political landscape probably played the largest role in deciding this very close election (and it seems pretty clear that fraud did not, despite the contemporary and persistent arguments to the contrary). But throughout the campaign, there was a consistent debate which overshadowed either of those and any other factors: the questions surrounding Kennedy’s Catholicism. I wrote for my Talking Points Memo column back in 2015 about those debates, and won’t rehash the same points here (although they’re worth remembering in an era when the majority of our Supreme Court are devout Catholics, a clear reflection that these narratives have changed). Instead I’ll just note that whatever the effects of these religion debates on the election—and that’s a very complicated question, since Kennedy’s religion may at the same time have pushed some voters away and brought in other new ones—they, and Kennedy’s significance as the first Roman Catholic President (and only one until our current administration), remind us that no election exists in a vacuum, and that historic significance often goes far beyond the winners and losers in a given year.
Last contested election tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?