Did Nixon Win the Popular Vote in 1960? And Other Stories

In this episode we look at an enduring mystery, one that didn’t matter too much in the 1960 election but has since taken on significance. Could it be that Kennedy lost, and Nixon won, the popular vote nationally in 1960. We looked at it a decade ago, and at that time MHCBUYP declared that Richard Nixon may rightly join popular vote winners but election losers: Cleveland, Jackson, Tilden and Gore. These candidates won the popular vote but were denied an Electoral College victory. We still think it’s possible Nixon joins this list, but not in a clear-cut way. Then again. Kennedy’s popular vote victory, oft brought up in 1960 election accounts because of it’s razor-edge closeness (just over 100K of 68M+ cast) is also not as clear cut.

While the popular vote total can’t do anything in regards to the Constitutional right to serve as President, it is an important rallying point for the party whose candidate has won but is denied the keys to The White House. For Tilden, who won the popular vote as nationally recorded, but lost the electoral college after a protracted battle, the martyr status made him an influential player in Democratic politics thereafter, and was noted in the campaigns of 1880 and 1884. Cleveland too, became the undisputed choice of Democrats in 1892 for the nomination because he was perceived as the ‘robbed’ popular vote winner. Since we last talked about this topic, Hillary Clinton was added to the list of pop vote but not EC winners in 2016.

But what about Dick Nixon? Well, there’s at least one way to count the votes that makes Nixon the popular vote winner in his first of three Presidential elections, where he was denied The White House by the Electoral college. In fact, Congressional Quarterly magazine counted it that way, Nixon as winner, back in 1960. But most accounts since then counted the results for Kennedy.

What’s the story?

First, let’s start with the Popular vote in 1960 the way it’s normally expressed There are many numbers floating around, none that much different – we use Dave Leip’s Presidential Election Atlas, as we have for the 14 year history of the podcast. https://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/index.html

So a Kennedy Popular vote by 112,827. Close election when so many millions voted. But not the closest – that honor goes to James Garfield’s win in 1880 by just over 10,000 votes between the two party candidates. Of course, where those votes came from – city votes in Chicago and New York, rural votes in Georgia and Texas, ensured that Kennedy’s electoral college win would be indisputable. One note about that win: Kennedy’s margin includes 318K votes in Alabama when his name was not on the ballot. Alabama had a strange procedure – it allowed voters to vote for up to 11 electors. Three sets of electors were available. Republicans, unified in supporting Nixon. Uncommitted electors, led by former governor Frank Dixon, a segregationist not pledged to vote for Kennedy, and a ‘Loyalist’ ticket, loyal to the National Democratic candidate and John Patterson, current governor of Alabama, who was Kennedy’s biggest supporter in the South. Here are the results for each sides “top” elector, the one that got the most votes. Sorry for my handwriting.

In total, Dixon’s uncommitted slate got 6 electors, Patterson/Kennedy’s Loyalist slate got 5. Nixon won no electors, but his top elector got 237K in the state of Alabama – this is also in Nixon’s national popular vote total in all accounts. The Democrats were split, but since people could vote for 11, some people voted for Dixon’s electors, and some people voted for Patterson/Kennedy’s electors – they mixed and matched. Dixon got the most votes of any elector in Alabama, 324K. Kennedy’s “top elector” was close, but got less votes, 318K.

So traditional accounts take Kennedy’s or CG Allen’s vote (a judge and a Patterson ally, thus a Kennedy ally) and add it to Kennedy’s total. Why not? Kennedy got 318K Alabamans to vote for at least one elector for him.l

No, some say, that’s not logical. All the Republicans voted for Nixon but Kennedy only got 5/11th of the electors at stake. Otherwise, you are double-counting votes and giving Kennedy the votes that clearly in some cases went to Dixiecrat segregationist electors who would end up giving 6 of 11 electoral votes to Harry Byrd, a segregationist from Virginia who did not campaign in the state. If you give Kennedy 318K votes, you are saying Byrd got none? How could that be?

So the most logical thing is to split the top Democratic elector (Frank Dixon) and give Kennedy 5/11ths of his total.

Okay, this is fair to the people in Alabama who didn’t vote for Kennedy electors and want their popular vote recorded, perhaps, but it also changes the national popular vote total. Nixon now wins the popular vote in 1960. Why? Under this method, Kennedy gets just 147K. But Nixon gets all 237K votes because his electors were unchallenged. Republicans voting in AL were voting for Republicans, all voting for Nixon-committed electors, and they knew it.

Richard Nixon, and not John Kennedy, is now the national popular vote winner by more than 58,000 votes. Nixon is the ‘robbed candidate.’ I should note that it’s still a very small margin – 1960 is close no matter which way you count Alabama. Such a divided country, changing its politics, moving to surburbs, with regional divides, so new, [nothing like today?] And under this formula, Nixon’s win is less than Cleveland’s 90K, Gore’s 500K Tilden’s 250K or Clinton’s 2.8 million-vote wins. But nonetheless, counting Alabama in a way that captures the Democratic split and considers him the only unsplit ticket, Nixon wuz robbed.

Yet, one still has questions, as I scribbled on my legal pad. Starting with. It requires you to say that Nixon won the popular vote in Alabama and Kennedy lost it. But…whiskey, tango… that doesn’t jive. Nixon electors got the lowest totals.

But the Nixon supporters of this argument would argue, he got the most unchallenged votes, the most easy to discern.

Maybe you just want to say – forget it! Alabama is too weird, at least in this election, and because of the way they decided to pick electors we cannot count their national popular vote total. Let’s take out Alabama? There’s precedent, because the national popular vote total in elections past were calculated without states that didn’t count it, because they chose electors by legislature or another method. If you remove Alabama, Kennedy wins the popular vote by 80,000.

In the end, the reason that it’s hard to count the national popular vote in 1960 is that there is no national popular vote. There were it means something but it doesn’t. There were 50 elections in 1960 (DC did not yet vote). Each had their own rules, and these were Alabama’s. Applying a ‘national popular vote’ to 50 state elections can sometimes fail, as it did here.

Plus it isn’t like the candidates were gunning for popular vote wins anyway. They were, but they were in 50 states. As William MacDougall wrote in this 2000 piece in the New York Times:

“1960 and 2000 alike demonstrate that the popular vote means nothing because the candidates understood from the start that they were competing for states and they both campaigned on that basis. If the rules going into this election had stipulated that the popular vote alone would determine the victor, then Mr. Bush would have camped out in California, upstate New York and Illinois, and might well have swamped Mr. Gore in the national vote. But instead, judging that he would not carry those populous states, Bush focused elsewhere in a campaign to win a majority of electoral votes.”

That’s not to say the popular vote is unimportant, especially when vote totals are not just a rounding error but represent real margins, more than a percent of the vote. And the popular vote should be the best indicator of the Electoral College, when it’s not clearly a significant group is going to have problems and thee President will be challenged. But as McDougall also points out, Presidents can correct for this.

“…Perhaps most important, 1960 teaches us that a candidate can win by a very slim margin (indeed, even lose the popular vote), and still govern effectively. President Kennedy sought to unite, not divide. He promoted bipartisanship on issues as volatile as civil rights, tax cuts and the cold war, and he preserved his nation’s respect and affection for the office of the presidency.

Finally, it’s worth noting that neither Kennedy nor Nixon fans should do too much chest-beating about a retrospective 1960 popular vote win. Such a win harkens back to a time when African American voters, especially in Alabama were widely disenfranchised. They were not able to add their numerous potential popular votes in Alabama to either candidate. In our podcast episode, which you should listen to for more information, we get into the story. Though a supporter in 1960, segregationist Alabama Governor Patterson would end up giving President Kennedy trouble and even refuse to take his call during the Freedom Rides and the horrific violence that occurred on his watch.

Music by Kevin MacLeod – freemusicarchive.org