13 Lessons from the 1960 Presidential Campaign

The 1960 campaign for president transformed American elections.


The 1960 campaign for president transformed American elections. The race, which pitted the young and charismatic John F. Kennedy against Vice President Richard Nixon, a seasoned politician, was one of the most competitive in the nation’s history, but it is noteworthy for other reasons as well. It catapulted television, an emerging medium at the time, to the forefront of American campaigns—where it has remained since—and transformed the ways in which campaigns strategize and appeal to voters. It was, in many respects, the first modern campaign. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the contest, and as we prepare for the start of the 2012 campaign for president, Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s legendary adviser and one of the campaign’s masterminds, reflects on the 1960 election and the lessons for contemporary campaigns.

  1) Even a young United States senator, inexperienced in executive administration and a member of an oft-disparaged demographic minority group, can, through hard work, defeat a hard-nosed, hard-eyed, hardhearted WASP who scowls more than he smiles – even though a single speech cannot overcome decades of disparagement for his demographic group. (Like many of these 1960 lessons, this one was reinforced by the 2008 campaign.)   2) Presidential nominations are won by little-known delegates at the grassroots level in each state, not by endorsements from big names in Washington, DC. Long-time governors and mayors are more important than congressmen and senators. Quoting my book Counselor: “The presidential race is not a single national campaign but many campaigns contested state by state.” This is a huge country, and years are required to find reliable and useful friends and allies in every state.   3) Presidential elections are won by electoral votes, not popular votes. A commitment to campaign in every one of the 50 states is foolish compared with a campaign strategy that devotes most of the candidate’s time, money, attention, and energy to those “feasible” states that constitute a majority, and does not waste time in smaller states where the candidate and his/her party have comparatively little chance of success. (We made no attempt to match Nixon’s commitment to campaign in every state, and JFK made repeat visits to New York, California, and Texas while Nixon was slogging through the snows of Alaska.)   4) The best preparation for the presidential television debate is good rest, good health, and good review of the substance and data on major issues and your opponent’s likely but indefensible positions.   5) Welcome, and encourage with a challenge, a debate with your opponent, particularly if he is better known and even if he is considered to be more experienced. (I doubt Goldwater’s claim that JFK had agreed to barnstorm across America debating him.) (JFK noted in Minnesota and during the fall campaign that debating Humphrey in the spring was a better experience than Nixon’s famous “kitchen” debate with Khrushchev.)   6) Do not waste time responding to or even worrying about ludicrous attacks from fringe sources that Americans are usually too sensible to believe. (As Gail Collins advised the American people in her New York Times column: “Keep in mind that 5% of the population is made up of lunatics who usually have no problem getting a megaphone.”)   7) It is just as critical to rely on enthusiastic young volunteers as aging and sometimes cynical, even if famous and highly paid, political consultants.   8) Utilize public opinion polls (as JFK did with the Louis Harris polls) to determine which parts of a particular state should receive the most effort, attention and advertising, not to determine who is temporarily ahead in a volatile “horse race” or what the voters think about taxes and spending (which you already know).   9) Make journalists (print, broadcast, or bloggers) your friends through candid conversations, honesty, accessibility, and humor, not conveying suspicion and secrecy.   10) The fall election campaign, even more than the race for the nomination, is truly a 24/7 ordeal for both the candidate and his or her staff, who cannot succeed coasting on one “major” speech per day for the evening television shows, but must instead give major speeches to large audiences in as many media markets as possible each day. You can catch up on sleep, family time, and thinking after you win.   11) Wholly apart from your campaign, establish an independent scholarly but practical plan for the transition between victory and inauguration without permitting members of your campaign team to compete against one another in planning their next job. Do not choose future cabinet members or agency heads. It is illegal to make offers and unwise to make choices relying merely on the bubble “reputation.”   12) Ignore outside advice, particularly complaints and criticism, from those who are not out there with you on the firing line and rely too much on media speculation. Every campaign has different dynamics, and those are unlikely to be understood even by aging veterans of earlier campaigns (like me).   13) Miscellaneous additions taken from my book Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (HarperCollins): (a) Tell the truth – about your military record, finances, career, education, and family life. Have confidence that even if you are not Lincoln, FDR, or perfect, you can do a better job than anyone else competing for the White House. Expect more pain than glory in the campaign; (b) can you genuinely conclude that no other equally able candidate is likely to win, that you and your family are ready to have your personal lives relentlessly scrutinized? If agonizing is required to produce affirmative answers, don’t run – it would be an agonizing campaign (no office provides meaningful preparation for the unique responsibilities of the presidency); (c) Consider whether the odds of nomination and election are sufficiently good to justify surrendering whatever seat or seniority you now possess. No early formal announcement or declaration is needed – quietly build a base while preserving your options; (d) Preparing a “negative research” file on yourself to prepare you in advance for whatever slings and arrows may be rained upon you is even more important than preparing a “negative research” file on your opponent; and (e) Do not talk down to the American people with pompous platitudes, piety and party slogans. Talk about the presidency, patriotism, and the perils facing the country. Avoid factions and quarrelling within your team (impossible to avoid within your party).   Ted Sorensen is former special counsel to President John F. Kennedy and author of the New York Times best selling book, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (HarperCollins).

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