An Unsuccessful Bid for the Vice Presidency
Former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson headed the Democratic ticket in the 1952 presidential election, and as the 1956 elections drew closer it appeared there was a strong possibility he would do so again. Kennedy was eager to be considered for the vice presidency, and Stevenson was open to considering him. In anticipation, Kennedy secured control of the Massachusetts Democratic delegation over Representative John McCormack, who had not forgotten about Kennedy's refusal to sign the petition to grant clemency to Mayor James Michael Curley back in 1947.
Positioning Himself for a Vice Presidential Bid
Kennedy sent out feelers to the Stevenson camp. Stevenson viewed Kennedy as one of the most promising of the younger generation of Democrats, but his staff worried that Kennedy's Catholicism might alienate voters. Without making any promises, Stevenson asked Kennedy to submit his name for the vice presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Joe Kennedy was opposed to his son's bid for the vice presidency. He believed Eisenhower was certain to win reelection, and it was politically risky for Jack to run on a ticket that was sure to lose. Furthermore, Joe feared Democrats would blame the inevitable loss on Jack's Catholicism, and his hopes for a presidential run would be seriously hurt.
Despite his father's concern, on August 12, 1956, Jack arrived in Chicago for the Democratic national convention with only a slight glimmering hope of winning Stevenson over. The next night, Jack's narration in a film about the history of the party received widespread praise at the convention. His good looks and charm positioned him well, and the New York Times compared him to a “photogenic movie star.” The hotel lobby filled with crowds of adoring people who hoped he would become the vice presidential nominee.
The first part of the convention went as planned. Kennedy introduced Stevenson to the assembled delegates, who duly nominated Stevenson as their presidential candidate. What happened next was not entirely anticipated. Instead of selecting his own running mate, Stevenson decided to let the delegates choose one for him. Taken by surprise, the vice presidential hopefuls scrambled to round up support.
“[T]he personality of the Senator just came right out. It jumped at you on the screen. The narration was good, and the film was emotional. He was immediately a candidate. There was simply no doubt about that because he racked up the whole convention.”
— Dore Schary, as quoted in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga
Kennedy and his team met to decide how to handle the situation. Kennedy himself wasn't convinced he should fight for the nomination, but when he heard the Georgia delegation was behind him, he exclaimed, “By God, if Georgia will vote for me, I must have a chance. I'll go for it.”
His excitement, however, temporarily subsided when his father received the shocking news of his plan by phone. It was a rare occasion, especially in regard to politics, that Kennedy made such a big decision without his father's assent. But this time, Kennedy decided to move forward with or without his father's support.
Battling for the Nomination
Kennedy knew that a win was a long shot. Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver was popular among the delegates, and Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey had a core of support. Nevertheless, a chance at the vice presidency would position Kennedy for the presidency in 1964. In spite of the odds, Kennedy supporters put out an all-night effort printing banners, placards, noisemakers, and leaflets. In addition, Jack and Bobby Kennedy spent many hours in and out of hotel rooms trying to gain the support of delegates.
“Texas proudly casts its vote for the fighting sailor who wears the scars of battle.”
— Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, announcing the Texas delegation's support for Kennedy
The late-night rally to move Kennedy into position appeared to have paid off when the first ballots were cast the next day. Kefauver received 483½votes to Kennedy's 304. The second ballot looked even more promising; Kennedy was in the lead with 648 votes to Kefauver's 551½. Amazingly, Jack had needed only 38 more votes to win, but the third round ended Jack's bid. Kefauver was the first to receive a majority. He won 755½votes to Jack's 589.
Although Kennedy lost, the television networks carried live coverage of the nomination process, and it caught the attention of the American public. Kennedy, with his endearing smile, was suddenly thrust into the public limelight. His gracious concession speech earned him respect, and he walked away from the convention as an upwardly mobile politician. Even Joe, who had disagreed with his run, was pleased with the result. According to Joe, the convention had propelled Jack into the perfect position. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was also elated. In a letter to Jack he remarked: “Your general demeanor and effectiveness made you in a single week a national political figure.”
Campaigning for Adlai Stevenson
Kennedy's popularity with the public was more than a fluke. When he set out across the country to campaign for Adlai Stevenson that summer, his charm, wit, and humor left audiences clamoring for more. He saw clearly that Stevenson was likely to lose the election by a landslide, but he realized that stumping for Stevenson was an effective way to boost his own recognition across the country. Kennedy traveled to twenty-four states and gave about 150 speeches before the November election, which went, as expected, to Eisenhower. For Kennedy, the intensity of campaigning for Stevenson was a learning experience that gave him a glimpse of what his own future campaign would entail.
How are delegate votes determined at a party's national convention?
Democrats award delegates according to the proportion of votes a candidate received at a state primary or caucus. Depending on the state, the Republicans award delegates by using the proportional method or by awarding all the state delegates to the candidate who received the most votes during the state primary or caucus. In 1960, the Democratic Party delegates voted according to directives from state party bosses and not the candidates their constituents urged them to support.