The 1960 West Virginia primary: Can it happen again?

In 2016, both Democratic presidential candidates go into the West Virginia primary hoping that that it will do for them what it did for then-Senator John F. Kennedy 56 years ago. Since then, the 1960 West Virginia primary has assumed mythic proportions in the annals of American politics. But in 2016 it is a reminder of a nomination system that has all but ceased to exist.

In 1960, presidential primaries were the exception, not the rule. In fact, only 16 states held primaries that year and most of them were only “beauty contests”—they didn’t have any bearing on who the delegates from that state would vote for at the convention. If you were a serious candidate for president you didn’t bother even entering the primaries; instead, you traveled the country courting the leadership of the party. In the few states that had primaries, “favorite son” candidates often ran. These were high-level political leaders who were not running for president, but who could, by winning the primary, control the delegates from that state once they got to the convention—a surefire invitation into the infamous smoke filled rooms.

In 1960 Kennedy was a brash newcomer to many in the Democratic Party. Even more, he was a Catholic, meaning that even the party leaders who were attracted by his youth and charisma had doubts about his ability to win in a country that was mostly Protestant. Kennedy needed to run in the primaries—not because the primaries awarded delegates (most of them didn’t) but because he had to convince the party leaders that his Catholicism would not hurt the ticket. The “Political Notes” columns in Congressional Quarterly during the summer of 1959 reported on a very active John Kennedy and his lieutenants traveling from state to state to block favorite-son candidates from getting on ballots so that Kennedy would have some places where he could prove himself as a vote-getter.

The first opportunity was Wisconsin, on April 5, 1960. Kennedy won that primary but the leaders of the party were not so quickly convinced. As Theodore White tells it in his famous book, The Making of the President 1960,

The break of the popular vote would convince none of the bosses who controlled the delegates of the East that he was a winner. He had lost all four predominantly Protestant districts…His popular margin had come entirely from four heavily Catholic areas… They would be read, he knew, wherever men read politics, as a Catholic-Protestant Split.

So it was back to the drawing board for the Kennedy campaign. The next opportunity for him to prove himself to the bosses was the May 10 West Virginia primary. West Virginia was a state that did not have a very big Catholic population. In West Virginia, the Kennedy campaign pulled out all the stops. He and his brother Ted campaigned all over the state, as did Kennedy’s opponent Senator Hubert Humphrey. The Kennedy campaign contributed handsomely to the “slate card” funds that the local Democrats used to cue the voters on who to vote for. He also had to overcome the open hostility of President Franklin Roosevelt’s widow Eleanor—a big problem in a poor state that revered FDR. Here Kennedy had a secret weapon, the support of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. who mailed 50,000 pieces into West Virginia containing his signature and post-marked Hyde Park, the famous home of the late president. In fact, Kennedy spent so much money to win West Virginia that he later famously quipped, “I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy; Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.” He took a short break from campaigning in West Virginia to give a famous speech on separation of church and state; a speech that helped overcome the fear of his Catholicism.

Kennedy’s massive defeat of Humphrey in West Virginia (60.8% to 39.2%) effectively ended Humphrey’s presidential ambitions that year and gave Kennedy and his team the ammunition they needed to convince party leaders that a Catholic could win in a non-Catholic state. But while it was a turning point in the campaign, it did not end it. The West Virginia primary results had no effect on the votes of the delegates from West Virginia to the Democratic National Convention. Kennedy still had the convention before him where he needed to convince the delegates that he, not Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson or former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson or Senator Stuart Symington should be the nominee.

Fifty-six years ago, the convention delegates were the most important players, and primaries were used to influence the delegates. These days, thanks to the enormous and largely unforeseen changes that took place between 1968 and 1972, the power dynamic shifted—the voters have been allowed into the nomination process. The 1960 Democratic primary offers insight into a nomination system that is almost gone. But in 2016 on the Republican side we have seen remnants of that system as Republican leaders pondered if and how they could stop Donald Trump at their convention. The answer seems to be, as the Republican Party leaders are now discovering, that as much as they might want to, it is very hard to contradict the voters. The 1960 nomination system is largely gone and there’s not much anyone can do about it.

Elaine C. Kamarck is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates. She is a superdelegate to the Democratic convention.