Great mistakes in politics (No40) Nixon pledges to campaign in all 50 states in 1960

There are a lot of reasons why Richard Nixon lost the 1960 Presidential election to John F Kennedy. These include the fact that Kennedy was more adept at using the relatively new medium of TV, he had a better running mate in Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Nixon was perceived to have a rather dodgy public persona. There’s also the small matter that Kennedy cheated (so did Nixon, but at this stage in his career he clearly wasn’t as good at it).

One reason that isn’t mentioned that often is that Nixon had earlier in the year made the unwise pledge that he was going to campaign in all 50 states. In the past this would have been a difficult promise to fulfil, but the rise of cheap air-travel made it easier than ever before.

There are a couple of reasons why this was a bad idea. Most obviously is the nature of the American electoral system. Depending on the population of each state, some had many more electoral votes than others. Therefore it makes much more sense to campaign in the big states than the small ones. For instance, why spend weeks in places like Montana, Wyoming and Vermont which each have three votes, when you could campaign in Texas (38) or Florida (29). The importance of Florida can be clearly demonstrated as it was the crucial state Bush needed to defeat Gore in 2000.

The second reason is that some of these states were solidly Republican anyway. It didn’t make sense for Nixon to campaign in places he was highly likely to win. Equally it didn’t make sense for him to campaign in places where he stood no chance of victory, regardless of how many public appearances he made. All of his time, money and other resources should have been poured into the big swing states where it could have made a difference.

Finally there is the fact that campaigning in some states was incredibly time-consuming. Either this was because their voters were so spread out, with rural rather than urban populations, or because they took a long time to travel to and from e.g. Alaska and in particular Hawaii. By the time of the TV debates Nixon looked completely worn out while JFK looked relaxed and tanned because he’d had time to go on holiday.

This 50 states strategy was a mistake that subsequent campaigns learnt from. After 1964 political managers made a point to focus more on the swing states, as well as using TV to their full advantage to get the candidate’s message to areas where they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, travel to.  In some ways this could be seen as a negative development. Because of this emphasis on swing states, some places constantly receive a disproportionate amount of political attention, while other areas are neglected or ignored entirely. Equally the rise of TV has meant the cost of elections has soared, and politicians have to spend a lot of their time raising the money to pay for it.

Just for the record, Barry Goldwater pledged to campaign in all 50 states in 1964 and lost by a landslide. Barack Obama announced a 50 state strategy in 2008, and did visit all of them (and even claimed to have gone to 57). However I’d argue that in Obama’s case it was more symbolic than strategic, as in some cases he spent only a day or two maximum in each state. Either way, it wasn’t a mistake Nixon repeated in 1968 when he finally won.

Here is a Nixon advert from 1960:

For a full list of great political mistakes please click here

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About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
This entry was posted in American politics, Great mistakes in politics, Great political mistakes and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Great mistakes in politics (No40) Nixon pledges to campaign in all 50 states in 1960

  1. Pingback: Xavier Peytibi / Comunicación política » Blog Archive » La campaña de los 50 Estados

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