A Primary That Mattered

Rarely have Wisconsin presidential primaries played a decisive role in the selection of a nominee. The primary of 1960, with Hubert H. Humphrey versus John F. Kennedy, was different.

Baby boomers remember Hubert Humphrey as a talkaholic stooge for Lyndon Johnson’s failing Vietnam War policy and the loser in the 1968 presidential race, but there is more to his story.

Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin, 1960. (Courtesy, Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Ass'n.)

He vaulted to national prominence—as did Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—by way of a speech at the Democratic National Convention. Humphrey was the thirty-seven year-old Mayor of Minneapolis when he took the podium in 1948. Conventions actually conducted serious political business in those days and Humphrey rose to speak in favor of the minority plank on civil rights in the party platform.

The majority on the platform committee had recommended that the Democrats continue to close their eyes to the reign of racial discrimination, segregation and out right terror in the southern states, as well as the slightly milder forms of all three in the north, that had helped them win national elections for decades.

Humphrey stood up and said it was time “for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!” The delegates responded by voting in favor of the minority plank calling for federal laws against lynching,  an end to segregation in public schools and a halt to job discrimination based on race.

Delegates from several southern states stormed out of the hall, organized their own Dixiecrat Party, and nominated South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond for president. Some Democrats feared the loss of conservative southerners would doom President Harry Truman’s chances for re-election. Instead, he gained more than enough African-American voters to make up for it.

Humphrey himself won his race for the U.S. Senate that year. As the 1960 election appeared on the horizon he was, if not the frontrunner, arguably the first among equals.

In Wisconsin he was known as our “third senator.” By comparison, John F. Kennedy was a stranger from New England. Fewer states had primaries in 1960 than today, and Wisconsin’s was one of the earliest, which made it more important than it would be in later years. If Kennedy could beat Humphrey in the Minnesotan’s back yard, he would hurt his leading rival and establish himself as a national candidate.

Humphrey was the favorite of the liberal-progressive wing of the Wisconsin party, of most African-American, rural and union labor voters, and of non-Catholics. Kennedy appealed to more conservative voters, including Republican crossover voters in the Fox River Valley, where his family’s connections to Senator Joseph McCarthy weighed in his favor. A heavy majority of the forty percent of Wisconsinites who identified as Catholics was also on his side.

Well-aware of his oratorical abilities, Humphrey challenged Kennedy to debate the issues. Kennedy refused, relying on his well-stocked campaign chest for media buys, photogenic family members who toured the state, and his own “charisma,” a political attribute that was little spoken of in Wisconsin or elsewhere until the 1960 campaign.

Kennedy’s combine of cash, cousins and charm made Humphrey feel like “an independent merchant up against a chain store.”

John Kennedy on his charm campaign, 1960. (Courtesy, Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Ass'n.)

The turnout was the largest of the postwar years. Kennedy scored 476,000 votes to Humphrey’s 366,753. The Minnesotan stayed in the race for the West Virginia primary, which he lost by an even larger margin and where Kennedy proved that he could win an election in a state with a predominately non-Catholic electorate.

The 1960 primary was the only election John Kennedy won in Wisconsin. In the November general election, a majority of Wisconsin’s voters, and our state’s electoral votes, went to Richard Nixon.

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