In late March 1960 a yet to turn 43-year-old Senator from Massachusetts was near the beginning of his long hard struggle for the presidency when he arrived in Wisconsin to face off Minnesota’s popular senator.
Just as it may in this current election, the Wisconsin primary between John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in 1960 played an important role in choosing a nominee.
Once again as it had been in the past Wisconsin was an arena in which events of great political portent were taking place,” Life Magazine reported in its cover story March 28 1960. ” Jack Kennedy the democratic front-runner and Hubert Humphrey his most dogged pursuer, were plunged in an all out campaign to win the states presidential primary on April 5.
A victory for either candidate might unlock a boxful of delegates from other states. A defeat could prove disastrous.
Fewer states had primaries than they do now and Wisconsin was one of the earliest which made it so important. Wisconsin was the only state in 1960 to have an open primary – a primary in which party affiliation need not be established and any qualified voter could vote in the primary of either party.
The urbane Kennedy faced a very popular Midwestern senator. Humphrey, his homespun opponent was a favorite of the liberal progressive wing of the Wisconsin party, and the only candidate openly committed to halting the seemingly unstoppable Kennedy bandwagon.
If Kennedy could beat Humphrey so close to his home state, he could do real damage to his leading rival and establish himself as a national candidate.
As the battle went on there, the two most significant new political facts of 1960 took dramatic shape,” Life explained. “A record Kennedy vote in the New Hampshire primary and the consequences of the victory were threatening to turn the Kennedy campaign into a landslide. And the sensitive double-edged religious issue seemed to be helping Kennedy in heavily Catholic Wisconsin sending his bandwagon racing far in front of the field.
Though handsome and charismatic, Kennedy’s candidacy was far from a sure bet.
He was considered a light weight without an impressive political record, dogged by questions about his youth, Catholicism and health that threatened his candidacy. Many liberals found it hard to summon enthusiasm for Kennedy. Eleanor Roosevelt and others remembered bitterly that JFK had refused to speak out against McCarthy and only offered perfunctory support for progressive social causes especially civil rights.
The religious issue had surfaced conspicuously in Wisconsin when an ad in weekly newspapers throughout the state urged Protestants to vote for Humphrey.
Like today, money and media factored strongly into the outcome of the race.
It was the first campaign where there was so much focus on money — specifically the Kennedy’s family fortune and how that money helped fund TV spots especially in key primary states.
Competing campaign jingles could be heard blaring from transistor radios. Frank Sinatra tweaked the 1959 hit “High Hopes” to fit his pal Jack’s campaign: “Everyone is voting for Jack, ‘Cause he’s got what all the rest lack…”
Humphrey also commissioned campaign jingles such as “Hubie Humphrey We Love You” as well as choosing a more classic spiritual “Old Time Religion” as his main campaign song which was a subtle way of drawing attention to Kennedy’s Catholicism among suspicious voters.
Well spoken Humphrey challenged Kennedy to debate the issues, but Kennedy refused counting on his well stocked campaign war chest for media buys, his large family and his own “charisma.”
Behind the Kennedy Wisconsin surge is a model campaign organization whose family plan is spreading Kennedy’s all over the state. Humphrey with fewer funds and a smaller family relies on energy and his well articulated liberalism. He has tried vainly to draw Kennedy into debate- “I don’t think this should be a contest over who’s got the best voice or personality.”
The party pros were now asking the question can the Kennedy bandwagon be stopped?