historian, author, film producer

Why Virginia Will Decide the 2008 Election–Looking Back at the 1960 Election and The Long History of a Battleground State

It has been 48 years since Virginia was so thoroughly contested by both political parties in a presidential contest. In 1960 John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon campaigned across the state and both candidates recognized then that their party’s future might be found in the Commonwealth. 

Today the Obama-McCain contest bears a striking similarity to the Kennedy-Nixon battle. Then, as now, the possibility of a dramatic change in electoral patterns and political alignments seemed to dangle within reach of both parties. Then, as now, a new medium was shaping the political landscape. Then, as now, cultural battles over religion and values competed with foreign policy concerns, threats of economic recession, and ideas about executive leadership. Subtle and not-so-subtle ethnic prejudices hung in the air: could a Catholic be trusted, many Protestants asked about Kennedy.

Because a Democratic candidate has not won Virginia since Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964, and because Johnson has been the only Democratic candidate to win Virginia since 1948 when Truman carried the state, the close contest shaping up in 2008 over Virginia deserves the attention it is getting. Republicans Eisenhower (1952 and 1956), Nixon (1960, 1968, 1972), Ford (1976), Reagan (1980 and 1984), Bush (1988 and 1992), Dole (1996), and Bush (2000 and 2004) have won Virginia. But the pattern was not set until 1960 and only in that election did its shape and importance become clear.

Virginia, like most Southern states, had a long history of Democratic Party rule following Reconstruction. There were always opposition movements and independents who challenged the Democrats, but well into the twentieth century Virginia’s Democratic Party ran the state. Their political organization depended in large part on low voter participation. Poll taxes, one party rule, and understanding clauses kept many white and black voters from voting. Black voters were kept from the polls by constitutional provisions enacted in 1902. Political scientist V. O. Key called the state a “museum piece” in the late 1940s because so few Virginians voted.

Virginia’s Democratic leaders and the state’s small electorate began voting for conservative Republicans in the national elections beginning with Eisenhower in 1952. Some, such as Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., simply distrusted national Democrats as big spenders and as more likely to use federal power to meddle with the state’s segregation codes. Other voters simply appreciated Eisenhower’s war service and steady leadership. At the time when a war in Korea claimed thousands of American lives and the terrifying prospect of nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union loomed large, Eisenhower possessed credentials many Americans valued.

But in 1960 Kennedy and Nixon battled for Virginia because none of these patterns were clear and because Virginia would test the reach of both parties. The election is now famous for the importance of the televised debates and for Nixon’s poor performance on TV. As a new medium television had a powerful effect on the way voters understood the election and the candidates. In the nationally broadcast debates, Nixon appeared nervous and to have lost, while Kennedy was viewed as relaxed, more appealing, and the clear winner.

Both men appeared on local news in dozens of places across the country. They tried to use local television news in key districts to reach voters, and as it turned out the location of television stations brought a new geography to political campaigning. Both Nixon and Kennedy campaigned hard in Virginia. Both expected local television news to give their campaigns deep reach into the swing voters of the state.

Virginia was a battleground because it had a fast-growing suburban population with a rising young, baby-boom generation of voters coming of age. The state had a long Democratic tradition which Kennedy hoped to extend, but it also had a growing Republican base of transplants to the suburban areas. In the mountainous regions of its western borders in Appalachia and on its southern borders with Tennessee, Virginia had large areas of rural poverty and a long tradition of independent, even Republican voting. In these places working people made a living in coal mines, on tobacco farms, and in lumber mills. They distrusted the eastern Virginia Democrats and, yet, they also had reason to doubt whether the Republicans had their economic interests at heart.

Kennedy flew to Roanoke to appeal to these voters and energize the Democratic base on the state. At the edge of the state’s mountain region, he hoped to find enough support in Nixon’s stronghold area to return the state to the Democratic column.03_14.jpgFor a full view of Kennedy’s speech in Roanoke, see the Television News of the Civil Rights Era site.

Kennedy depicted himself as a candidate in the long tradition of the Democratic Party and as more capable of meeting the Soviet threat. He promised to stand up to Nikita Khrushchev and to balance the budget with lower taxes and interest rates. After the prosperous fifties, a lingering recession unsettled voters. Kennedy did not mention civil rights at all, even though in February 1960 students in North Carolina began a sit-in movement that swept across the nation and called national attention to the discrimination of segregation laws in the South. He chose to concentrate entirely on who was qualified to meet foreign dangers and which party could be trusted to lead the nation into prosperity.

Nixon on the other hand flew to Richmond where he hoped to convince longtime Democratic voters that he would continue in the mold of the popular Eisenhower and that the Republican Party represented their true conservative views and interests.2_32.jpgFor a full view of Nixon’s Richmond speech, see Television News of the Civil Rights Era site.

Nixon for his part hoped to gain a foothold for the Republican Party in the South, a region where white voters had disdained the party for generations. Because these voters went for Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, Virginia offered a place to begin Nixon’s southern strategy and revitalize the Republican Party in the region. He won Virginia with 52.44 % of the vote and carried the big suburban areas and the mountainous western counties. Kennedy, for all of his television appeal, youth, and glamour, lost handily in the suburban counties and won most easily in the traditional, conservative, tobacco-producing rural Democratic strongholds. In retrospect, Kennedy’s county-by-county performance in Virginia seems unbelievable because he won the counties most committed to the racially segregated South and its Democratic Party. Running with Lyndon Johnson of Texas, Kennedy won nearly all of the rest of the South relying on the same voters who had supported him in Virginia.

In 1960 the election in the South held few surprises, but Virginia’s overwhelming support for Nixon indicated the earliest beginnings of the Republican resurgence in the entire region, a movement that radically reshaped the electoral map in the following decades. In 2008 Virginia’s role could be similarly pivotal, perhaps for the Democrats.

As McCain and Obama concentrate on Virginia, their campaigns may not be able turn to 1960 for guidance. The nationally victorious candidate did not win the state, and instead the most important realignment came on the side of the national election’s loser. In 1960 Virginia became for the first time a reliable possibility for Republican presidential candidates after nearly a century of Democratic predominance. Nixon’s coalition in Virginia combined moderate and conservative new voters in the fast-growing suburbs with the traditional Republicans in the mountains. It was truly a Pyrrhic victory. Neither side seeks such an outcome.

Kennedy’s failure to carry Appalachian voters, except those with the most loyally Democratic coal mining labor unions, was lost in the glare of his national success. The Democratic weaknesses in 1960 Virginia were clear in hindsight–despite Kennedy’s national victory, his party was losing ground in the state to demographic changes and Democratic Party divisions.

In 2008 the roles might be reversed. Division afflicts the Republicans and demographic changes favor the Democrats. Of course, Obama, like Kennedy, could lose Virginia and still win the national election.

There is a final and most important consideration in this campaign and explains why Virginia may decide the election. Virginia is the only state in the South to have elected a black governor since Reconstruction. Douglas Wilder in 1989 won election to the state’s highest office–the grandson of slaves and a Democrat, he began his historic campaign in the remote western reaches of Virginia at the Cumberland Gap, seeking the votes of those same Appalachian voters. Much discussion followed the election when polling showed that some Virginia whites said they would vote for Wilder but then did not. Still, Wilder was elected, and Virginia voters showed they could elect a black chief executive.

If 1960 was the last pre civil rights election, the 2008 election may be the first election in a post civil rights era of politics. In 1960 black voters were almost completely disfranchised as Kennedy and Nixon battled for the votes of white Virginians. When poll taxes were declared unconstitutional and voting rights protected through the determined efforts of civil rights advocates, and after black voters in Virginia registered and organized in the 1960s, decades of black voter participation followed.

Now, in 2008 with an African American candidate leading the Democratic Party, Virginia seems poised to cast its electoral votes for him. If it does so, the election will have been fought out and decided much in the same manner as the 1960 contest but with a crucial difference–a fully participating black and white electorate to whom both candidates are appealing. It seems likely that what happens in Virginia will prove decisive. If 2008 is anything like 1960, we will be surprised only in retrospect when we look back and see a pattern that no one at the time fully recognized.