John F. Kennedy's narrow popular vote margin in 1960 has already insured this presidential election a classic position in the roll call of close American elections. Whatever more substantial judgments historical perspective may bring, we can be sure that the 1960 election will do heavy duty in demonstrations to a reluctant public that after all is said and done, every vote does count. And the margin translated into “votes per precinct” will become standard fare in exhortations to party workers that no stone be left unturned.
The 1960 election is a classic as well in the license it allows for “explanations” of the final outcome. Any event or campaign strategem that might plausibly have changed the thinnest sprinkling of votes across the nation may, more persuasively than is usual, be called “critical.” Viewed in this manner, the 1960 presidential election hung on such a manifold of factors that reasonable men might despair of cataloguing them.
Nevertheless, it is possible to put together an account of the election in terms of the broadest currents influencing the American electorate in 1960. We speak of the gross lines of motivation which gave the election its unique shape, motivations involving millions rather than thousands of votes. Analysis of these broad currents is not intended to explain the hairline differences in popular vote, state by state, which edged the balance in favor of Kennedy rather than Nixon. But it can indicate quite clearly the broad forces which reduced the popular vote to a virtual stalemate, rather than any of the other reasonable outcomes between a 60-40 or a 40–60 vote division.