The May 1960 West Virginia primary election stands as a landmark. It dispelled the widely held belief that being a Roman Catholic was a crippling handicap for a presidential candidate. In this overwhelmingly Protestant state, Catholic Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts soundly defeated Protestant Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, winning in 50 of the 55 counties.
In the month preceding the West Virginia voting, Kennedy had defeated Humphrey in the Wisconsin primary. Kennedy’s winning percentage there was a comfortable 56-44 but not enough to make Humphrey give up as a candidate. The religious issue had surfaced conspicuously in Wisconsin when an ad in weekly newspapers throughout the state urged Protestants to vote for Humphrey.
Apart from religion, all the advantages seemed to be on Kennedy’s side as the contest moved into West Virginia. He had plenty of money for advertising, staff salaries, and other campaign expenses. He enjoyed a reputation as a World War II hero. Humphrey had not served in the war. Humphrey also had emerged from Wisconsin heavily in debt, forcing him to campaign as cheaply as possible in West Virginia. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., son of a president immensely popular in West Virginia, came to the state to campaign for Kennedy.
Despite Kennedy’s seeming advantages, a Lou Harris poll three days before the election showed Humphrey with a 45-42 edge. Kennedy devoted most of a TV appearance the Sunday evening before the election to trying to defuse the religious issue. Theodore H. White in The Making of the President 1960 called it ‘‘the finest TV broadcast I have ever heard any political candidate make.’’ Concluding the telecast, Kennedy said when a president swears on the Bible in his oath of office he is swearing to support separation of church and state. ‘‘And if he breaks his oath, he is not only committing a crime against the Constitution, for which the Congress can impeach him—and should impeach him—but he is committing a sin against God.’’
After that Sunday evening telecast, Lou Harris conducted another poll. The result gave Kennedy a slight edge. His edge was anything but slight in the voting two days later. The statewide totals: Kennedy 236,510; Humphrey 152,187. Once the outcome was clear, Humphrey announced he was no longer a presidential candidate, and Kennedy said, ‘‘I think we have now buried the religious issue once and for all.’’
This Article was written by Herb Little
Last Revised on October 07, 2010
Fleming, Dan B. Kennedy vs. Humphrey, West Virginia, 1960. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1992.
White, Theodore H. The Making of the President, 1960. New York: Atheneum, 1961.