To begin with, I always say that if you are really smart, you are never afraid to say "I don't know" or "I was wrong." And I was wrong two weeks ago (along with everyone else) about what was going to happen in the election, and I'm glad that I was. Nate Silver seems to agree with me about this and I'm looking forward to his explanation of why their House forecast was significantly off. Meanwhile, it seems quite possible, though not probable, that the Democrats will even keep control of the House. I would also not rule out the possibility that enough Republicans might defect from their party to swing control to the Democrats, if they initially emerge with a narrow majority and McCarthy is voted down for Speaker by the Trumpers, as seems quite possible. I will defer any election analysis for later.
Meanwhile, over the last few days, I relived what remains the most exciting night of my life: November 8, 1960, when the nation barely elected John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon. Youtube is a wonderful thing, and the entire CBS broadcast of that night is available there in three chunks. I watched the whole last chunk, from about 11:30, when a Kennedy victory seemed certain, to about 5:00 AM, when they signed off having called a majority of electoral votes (including Illinois) for Kennedy. This wasn't exactly reliving that night because I watched Huntley, Brinkley and the rest on NBC then. (A very edited version of their coverage is also available.) I was 13 then and this was the first election that I ever followed closely. My father was working in the campaign and had brought me to the DNC headquarters on a couple of Saturdays, where I actually met Robert Kennedy for the only time. I don't think, though, that I had given any thought to the possibility of his getting an administration job if JFK won, and I was very unpleasantly shocked a few months later when I found out that I would be spending the next two years in West Africa as a result. That, however, is another story.
Walter Cronkite anchored the broadcast, of course, and four correspondents covered the East, the South, the Midwest and the Far West, respectively. The East, beginning with Connecticut--perhaps the only fully automated voting state--broke quickly for Kennedy, with Connecticut and New York joining Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania following suit thanks in part to a very big Catholic vote for him in the Philadelphia area. Northern New England however remained solidly Republican. The South was one of the big stories because Kennedy did so well there. While Mississippi chose an unpledged state of electors as a protest against the pro-civil rights platforms of both major parties and Alabama added a few of those as well, Nixon carried only Florida, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, while Kennedy took Georgia, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and above all Texas, his running mate's home state. The broadcast featured a late night interview with Elmo Roper--the second-leading pollster in the country at that time after George Gallup--who claimed that Texas had appeared to be going for Nixon, as it had twice for Eisenhower, until right-wingers roughed up Johnson and Mrs. Johnson at a Dallas campaign event. I had forgotten that incident. Kennedy carried Texas by 46,000 votes, far more than have ever been stolen in any US election that I know of, and far more than the half-dozen Rio Grande Valley counties that gave him margins of 80 percent or more.
The dramatic action took place in the Midwest and to a lesser extent in the Far West. Nixon surprisingly took Ohio, probably because of anti-Catholic prejudice in much of the state, while Kennedy rapidly secured a substantial lead in larger Illinois, of which more later. CBS News had given Kennedy Illinois, and with it a narrow electoral majority, by the time they signed off, although they did not "call" the election. The midwestern cliffhangers that night were Michigan and Minnesota, which no one dared to call until the next morning, when Kennedy turned out to have taken Michigan by 67,000 votes and Minnesota by 22,000. The network gave Kennedy New Jersey and Missouri early in the evening, but rural votes eventually reduced his margins in those states to 10,000 and a mere 4,000. The western states, meanwhile, went almost entirely for Nixon--but California, the big prize with 32 electoral votes (New York then had 45) looked to be Kennedy country for hours after it began reporting in the middle of the night. Kennedy jumped off to a big lead, and the commentators, who had plenty of sophisticated historical data at their command, reported that no Democrat had never lost such a lead in a California election. CBS had not given the state to Kennedy when it signed off. I went to bed around 3:00 AM, and woke up around 7:00, when NBC was signing off after having called California for Kennedy and called the election for him on that basis. Within an hour or so, they had changed their minds. Kennedy remained ahead when all the election day votes were counted, but eventually lost the state to Nixon by a margin of 36,000 votes after all the absentee ballots were counted. Only Nevada and New Mexico, and eventually Hawaii went Democratic among the western states. It was a shock to me to realize yesterday that California had voted for only one Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, in all the presidential elections from 1952 until 1992.
As for Illinois, it has become a Republican myth that Mayor Richard J. Daley stole the 1960 vote for JFK, with the false implication that Nixon would otherwise have won. Kennedy wound up with 303 electoral votes and would have had 276 and a majority without it. Forty years ago, as I pointed out in The Road to Dallas, a political scientist named Kallina effectively debunked that myth with a very careful analysis of the Cook County vote. What I realized watching the broadcast was that the sequence of events during the night did not support that myth either, and indeed suggested that if anyone was manipulating the vote late at night it was downstate Republicans. When CBS signed off around 5:00 AM that night, the count showed JFK ahead by 101,000 votes. As it turned out, Nixon won 55 percent of the 877,000 votes that remained to be counted--most of them downstate--and the margin narrowed to just under 9,000 votes.
The economic, demographic and political decline of the American Northeast and Midwest is perhaps the most striking impression left by watching the broadcast. Pennsylvania that night had 32 electoral votes, tied with California, and Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan had 25, 27, and 20. Florida had 10 and Texas 24. In 2024 New York will have 28, Pennsylvania 19, Ohio 17, Illinois 19, and Michigan 15, while the three largest are California (54), Texas (40), and Florida (30). The broadcast's figures on the Middle West and the West illustrate other changes: Democrats and Republicans are competitive throughout those regions, although most of the South, then as now, is one-party territory. Yet there is also an extraordinary difference in the tone of the coverage. It is resolutely impartial. Again and again Cronkhite points out that either Kennedy or Nixon will be the first president born in the 20th century, and European correspondent David Schoenbrun adds that they will be decades younger than any European leader with whom they will have to deal. The commentators play down the issue of religion in the campaign, noting correctly that it might have helped Kennedy more than it hurt him, but ignoring that it clearly did determine the votes of millions of Americans on both sides. Cronkhite remarks at one point that probably no president has ever been elected at a more dangerous moment in the history of the the nation and the world--a clear reference to the Cold War, then at its height--but he says that calmly, as he does everything else. Nixon and Kennedy belonged to his generation--as do all the correspondents, I believe--and they had fought in or covered the Second World War and seen the nation emerge victorious from it. This election for them and for me at 13 was a critical episode in the great adventure that was the history of the United States. I recommend at least a few minutes of the broadcast to all my readers as an artifact of a lost world.