JFK’s popular vote victory: the myth

[Continuing our series on deception in politics.]

After George W. Bush won the presidency in the 2000 election despite losing the popular vote, liberals refused to accept the results.

First, they attempted to rig the election through a “selective recount” scheme—recounting the vote selectively in those areas where Bush’s opponent, Al Gore, was likely to pick up votes, and not recounting in areas that favored Bush. (This effort by the Gore campaign was struck down as a violation of voters’ rights by the U.S. Supreme Court. The vote was 7-2, and the majority included one of the two Clinton appointees.)

After Bush was proclaimed the winner, liberals ridiculed Bush as an illegitimate president and printed up bumperstickers proclaiming “RE-elect Gore in 2004!”

They attacked the Electoral College for robbing the American people of the president they wanted. Liberals argued fervently that only by winning the popular vote does someone fairly attain the presidency.

Would they have a different view of the Electoral College if, say, John F. Kennedy had won the presidency while losing the popular vote?

Because that’s what happened.

No, I’m not referring to credible reports of vote fraud in states narrowly won by Kennedy such as Illinois and Texas. I’m saying that JFK didn’t win the popular vote even if you count all the reported votes as legitimate. I’m saying that he won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote, just like Bush in 2000.

Kennedy’s defeat of Richard Nixon by a narrow margin is a fact that everyone “knows.” Wikipedia puts the margin at 112,827 votes, 0.17% of the popular vote.

The reality:

Once Senator John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination for president, many Democrats faced a dilemma. Both Kennedy and his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, opposed the Jim Crow (racial segregation) laws that were in effect in much of the country, especially in the deeply Democratic states of the South.

Now, keep in mind that a state’s votes for president and vice president are actually cast by electors from that state. Each political party selects a slate of electors, usually longtime party supporters who can be counted on to cast votes for the party’s official nominee. If you vote for, say, Obama for president, you’re not really voting for Obama; you’re voting for electors who promise to vote for Obama.

Today, electors are chosen by the respective hierarchies of the political parties, usually at state conventions or by a state party’s executive committee. In some places, in times past, the electors were selected in party primaries—elections in which (depending on state law) all voters or all registered party members could vote.

In 1960, Alabama was a Democratic state with virtually no Republican presence. Republicans were so rare that they didn’t even qualify to have a state-sponsored primary. Everyone voted in the Democratic primary, and winning the Democratic primary was, as they said at the time, “tantamount to election.”

Electors for the Democratic ticket were selected in the Democratic primary. If Alabama Democrats weren’t happy with the presidential choice of the national Democratic Party, they were allowed to override that choice. In 1948, if you voted in Alabama for the “Democratic” ticket, you were voting for Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (or, technically, for electors pledged to Thurmond). You couldn’t vote for the national Democratic nominee, Harry Truman.

In 1964, Democrats in Alabama put forth a slate of electors that, had they won, would have voted for the state’s governor, George C. Wallace, rather than for the national Democratic nominee, President Lyndon Johnson. (The Republicans, with Barry Goldwater as their nominee, carried the state nonetheless in ’64.) In 1968, Alabama Democrats won Alabama with their nominee, Wallace, who defeated the national Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey—that is, Wallace electors running as the official Democrats defeated Humphrey electors running on minor-party slates.

Back in 1960, contests for the position of presidential elector pitted pro-Kennedy Democrats against anti-Kennedy Democrats. The anti-Kennedy Democrats likely would have won all the elector seats but for the fact that they were split between supporters of several alternative candidates (including Thurmond and Virginia Senator Harry Byrd). The final tally in the Democratic primary gave the anti-Kennedy Democrats six seats and pro-Kennedy Democrats five seats among Alabama’s 11 presidential electors.

In other words, the anti-Kennedy Democrats won the primary, but the result was a six-to-five split. That means that, in November, a “Democratic” vote was a vote for six anti-Kennedy electors (who would eventually vote for Byrd) and five pro-Kennedy electors. In those days, the typical Alabamian voted a straight ticket, pulling the single lever on a machine or marking the single X in a circle on a paper ballot so as to cast his or her vote for all the candidates of a single party.

As strange as it seems, a “Democratic” vote in Alabama that November was a vote 45.4% in favor of Kennedy and 54.6% against Kennedy! A vote for Nixon was, simply enough, a vote for Nixon. Well, Nixon electors.

The presidential electors ran for individual slots, so it’s possible that some people voted for some anti-Kennedy electors and some pro-Kennedy electors, or for some anti-Kennedy electors and some Nixon/Republican electors, or for some other combination involving electors pledged to Orval Faubus, segregationist governor of Arkansas (candidate of the National States Rights Party) or Rutherford Decker (Prohibition Party) or Clennon King (Independent Afro-American Party).

In dealing with this controversy, Wikipedia punted. This is what that online encyclopedia says:

The actual number of popular votes received by Kennedy in Alabama is difficult to determine because of the unusual situation in that state. The first minor issue is that, instead of having the voters choose from slates of electors, the Alabama ballot had voters choose the electors individually. Traditionally, in such a situation, a given candidate is assigned the popular vote of the elector who received the most votes. For instance, candidates pledged to Nixon received anywhere from 230,951 votes (for George Witcher) to 237,981 votes (for Cecil Durham); Nixon is therefore assigned 237,981 popular votes from Alabama.

The more important issue is that the statewide Democratic primary had chosen eleven candidates for the Electoral College, five of whom were pledged to vote for Kennedy, and six of whom were free to vote for anyone they chose. All of these candidates won in the general election, and all six unpledged electors voted against Kennedy. The actual number of popular votes received by Kennedy is therefore difficult to allocate. Traditionally, Kennedy is assigned either 318,303 votes (the votes won by the most popular Kennedy elector) or 324,050 votes (the votes won by the most popular Democratic elector); the results table [in the Wikipedia page on the 1960 presidential election] is based on Kennedy winning 318,303 votes in Alabama

By that calculation, Kennedy eked out a narrow popular vote victory over Nixon. The problem is that such an accounting gives Kennedy credit for the Democratic vote in Alabama despite the fact that, in both the primary and the general election, most Democrats in Alabama voted against Kennedy along with all Republicans, Prohibitionists, States-Righters, and supporters of the Independent Afro-American Party.

Anyone tempted to put all or most of Alabama’s Democratic votes in the JFK column should also consider this: The night before the election, Alabama Governor John Patterson went on television to urge that people vote Democrat in order to show their support for segregation. (Ironically, Patterson had delivered a key bloc of convention votes to Kennedy when he was seeking the Democratic nomination.)

In a 1988 letter to the New York Review of Books, George Mason University’s Gordon Tullock, responding to a review, by Francis Russell, of a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, noted the peculiar situation in Alabama in 1960:

In that primary election a slate of anti-Kennedy electors won six of the eleven positions and five were won by the pro-Kennedy electors. The six anti-Kennedy electors then proceeded to carry on a vigorous and active campaign. The pro-Kennedy electors stayed home and said nothing. The ultimate outcome was 324,000 votes for all eleven Democratic electors. The anti-Kennedy electors received eight thousand more votes than the pro-Kennedy electors.

The popular vote is very difficult to disentangle. The above figures assume that the people who voted for all eleven of the electors were pro-Kennedy. Obviously, this is too simple, but what should be substituted for it is by no means obvious. I personally would suggest that we simply discard all these votes in the popular total on the grounds that we can’t tell what these voters thought. Another possibility would be to divide the popular vote cast for these eleven electors in the same ratio as the popular vote in the earlier primary. Either of these corrections would lead to Nixon having more popular votes nationally than Kennedy.

Russell responded to Tullock:

Given the Byzantine intricacies of Alabama politics, it is indeed possible that Nixon’s popular vote may have slightly exceeded Kennedy’s in that close election. Whereas in most states in a presidential election voters are given a single slate of Republican or Democratic electors to check off, Alabama Democratic voters could choose or reject individually from the list of electors, eleven separate choices. There must have been considerable vote-splitting in 1960, for an anti-Kennedy elector topped the list with 324,050 votes, trailed by a pro-Kennedy with 318,303 votes. This latter figure the Congressional Quarterly gives as the total Alabama Kennedy vote. The difference between the “anti” and the “pro,” the Quarterly tabulates as “Other.” The “Others” then, with some six thousand votes, take six electors whereas the Republicans with thirty times that total get no electors at all. This, as Professor Tullock points out, is an absurdity.

There is no tabulating the vote exactly, but for a reasonable approximation one can divide 318,303 by eleven, multiply it by five for the pro-Kennedys and by six for the anti-Kennedys. The Kennedy Alabama total would then be 144,685 instead of the Quarterly‘s given 318,303. If we then deduct the 179,838 anti-Kennedy Alabama votes from the national total then Nixon did have a final 64,165 vote plurality in the 68,828,960 votes cast.

By the way, the fact that Kennedy failed to win the national popular vote was initially noted by major national publications such as the New York Times. As the years passed, and his legend grew, the complicated truth about the 1960 vote was forgotten, to be replaced by the story that Kennedy won by a little more than 100,000 votes.

After JFK was assassinated, his widow Jackie led an effort to elevate him to the pantheon of great presidents. His time in office became associated with “Camelot,” a then-current Broadway musical that depicted a Golden Age, the time of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Myths were shaped to support this concept—how he saved the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis, how he fought hard for civil rights, how he was the most faithful of family men, how, if he had lived, he would have prevented the Vietnam disaster.

A small part of that myth was that he won the popular vote in 1960. It was a pretty insignificant little fib that became important only in light of the attempts to deprive George W. Bush of legitimacy in 2000 and to abolish the Electoral College altogether.

A personal note: If I had been old enough to vote, I probably would have voted for Kennedy. JFK was the kind of Democrat we don’t see any more: he was a supply-sider, favoring across-the-board tax cuts to boost the economy; he was strongly anti-Communist and believed deeply in American Exceptionalism; and, reluctantly or not, he provided support at critical points for the civil rights movement, which in those days had the goal of achieving a color-blind society. Perhaps he would have been a great president, had he lived, but an unspeakable crime half a century ago deprived us of the chance to find out.

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