A Clear Winner

Nixon
Credit: White House photo by Hartmann

Kennedy
Credit: White House photo by Cecil Stoughton

On November 8, 1960, America went to the polls to elect a new president. John F. Kennedy beat Richard M. Nixon in one of the closest elections in US history. More than 68 million citizens cast their votes, and Kennedy came out ahead by less than 2/10ths of 1%. There were widespread allegations of vote-stealing on both sides, and many calls for a recount.

If this had been a direct election, a national recount of 68 million votes would have taken months, and opened up more potential for fraud. But because the Electoral College divided one big national election into 50 individual state elections, recounts were only pursued in a few states where the vote was closest. And because Kennedy had a huge lead in Electoral votes—318 to 219—Nixon would have had to win just about all the challenges to change the outcome of the election. It soon became clear that wouldn’t happen, and most of the recounts were dropped. The Electoral College took what had been a virtual tie in the popular vote and turned it into a clear victory for Kennedy.

Six times in American history, the top vote-getter for president beat the challenger by less than 1%. If we had a national direct election, verifying these results would have required a national recount. Under the Electoral College, there would only be recounts in a couple of close states, or perhaps no recounts at all.

In fact, the Electoral College almost always produces a wider margin of victory that the popular vote totals. This makes the election seem more clear-cut, giving the president the mandate needed to lead the country.

1960 Electoral College Map
Credit: National Atlas

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