The Primary that Made a President

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WVWC professor examines the 1960 W.Va. Presidential Primary

BUCKHANNON — A wealthy Roman Catholic won an impressive victory in a blue-collar, Protestant state.

The small state of West Virginia provided the most important step for John F. Kennedy on his way to the president’s office.

Dr. Robert Rupp recently presented his research for a faculty lecture, “The Primary That Made a President: The 1960 West Virginia Presidential Primary” at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

“What we are talking about is the intersection between an ambitious politician who wanted to be president and a state that stands in his way,” he said. “The verdict West Virginians rendered on May 10, 1960 was decisive in making John Kennedy president. A small state stood between him and the presidential nomination.”

Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey were two of eight candidates going for the Democratic nomination with Humphrey being Kennedy’s main competition.

“Back in 1960, primaries were eye-wash,” Rupp said. “They were not important at the time and there weren’t many of them. At this point, there were only two contested primaries. Kennedy will enter eight of them but only in two — Wisconsin and West Virginia — does he have significant opposition.

“He was supposed to blow Humphrey away and Kennedy did win in Wisconsin, but it’s not enough to win. The key thing is how the press reports his win. They said the only reason he won was because 30 percent of the state was Catholic. Every Congressional district with the majority Catholic went for Kennedy and every district with the majority Protestant went for Humphrey.

“Suddenly, Kennedy is not the candidate for president; he is the Catholic candidate for president,” Rupp said. “West Virginia is the last chance he gets to prove that a Catholic can carry Protestant votes.

“West Virginia has only 4 percent Roman Catholics at the time.

“If Kennedy can win West Virginia, then it shows that a Catholic can get Protestant votes. Remember, this is the last chance before the nomination for him to show it.”

So,Kennedy began his tour of the Mountain State on April 11, making as many as 16 stops in a day.

He poured $4 to $5 million in campaign ads and travel expenses with his plane.

Kennedy didn’t just spend time in the Mountain State, he did a lot of preparation. The Boston billionaire learned the difference between Charleston and Charlestown, he learned to pronounce Kanawha,  he learned to namedrop Jerry West in all counties except Cabell.

“Should we select presidents on the basis that they know state basketball heroes?” Rupp asked. “No. Do we do it? Yes.”

But Kennedy had a bigger hurdle to climb with his religion.

“His opponent was Humphrey,but his real opponent was Catholicism,” Rupp said. “The first Catholic nominated for the presidency, Al Smith, lost in a landslide in 1928.”

Kennedy didn’t talk religion in Wisconsin but he confronted it head on in West Virginia and created a new identity by focusing on food, family and the flag.

Before the primary, Kennedy left the state because he thought he was going to lose.

No polls had been taken since December; however, and Kennedy did not need to worry.

“Kennedy carried 50 of 55 counties,” Rupp said. “It was a landslide victory.”

Kennedy said he would not be president if he had not won the West Virginia primary, according to Rupp.

“An irony in American politics is that in 1960, a poor Protestant state in the Bible belt made it possible for the first Roman Catholic to be elected president,” he said.

Kennedy returned to West Virginia for its 1963 anniversary in June on a rainy day.

“The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do,” the president said.

Rupp’s presentation was the third in a faculty lecture series this fall. The last one will be held Monday, Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. in the Virginia Thomas Law Center for the Performing Arts.

Travis Zimmerman,assistant professor of criminal justice, will present “The Opioid Crisis in West Virginia.”

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