Wisconsin Primary 1960

 JFK Wisconsin Primary 1960

Life Magazine followed John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey as they campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination during the Wisconsin primary. Life Cover March 28, 1960

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.

Kennedy and Indian woman Wisconsin primary 1960

Long before Super Pacs, JFK had plenty of “wampum” from papa Joe Kennedy to finance his campaign. Photo: Life Magazine. “Jack Kennedy signs autograph on Squaws back in Wisc.”

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.


Hubert Humphrey campaigning Wisconsin 1960

“Senator Humphrey gets a handshake from dairy farmers near Madison Wisconsin.” Photo Life Magazine

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.

John Kennedy campaigning Wisconsin primary 1960

Kennedy came off as a rock star compared to classic old school Humphrey. Kennedy signs autographs for clamoring high school students in barnstorming stops at Mayville, Wis. In town after town schools had been let out so students could see Kennedy as he passed, and turnouts were large and enthusiastic. Photo Life Magazine

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.

politics Kennedy Wisconsin 60 SWScan03418 - Copy

Outside a Convent, Kennedy is briefly surrounded by sisters and postulants who pinned a shamrock on him. Photo: Life Magazine

The religious issue had surfaced conspicuously in Wisconsin when an ad in weekly newspapers throughout the state urged Protestants to vote for Humphrey.


politics Kennedy Humphrey wisconsin 60 SWScan03418 - Copy

(L) Old style politician Humphrey stitches buttonhole on machine at Milwaukee clothing plant. (R) Humphreys wife Muriel stretches to shake hands with steelworkers wife at a union auxiliary in Madison. Her homespun approach appeals to women.

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.

politics Kennedy Jackie Wisconsin 60 SWScan03416

Kennedy was handsome charming and with his stylish young wife Jackie, the epitome of cultured cosmopolitan. “Campaign favorite Jackie Kennedy following husband greets farmers. When Jackie failed to appear at stops with her husband, people asked for her.” Photo Life Magazine

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?




  1. Steven Blumrosen

    In the photo of Jack with the nuns, is that a hammer and sickle on the young nun’s face?


  2. The sad thing was that Hubert Humphrey should have been elected President in 1968. How different the country might have been, and for the better, had he been president and not Nixon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. After Robert Kennedy was killed, I switched my 13 year old allegiance to Humphrey and went to work volunteering at the local headquarters, making calls and stuffing envelopes. Things might have been much different….

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another fascinating look back — thanks for sharing Sally.


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