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November 23, 2003
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JOHN FUND ON THE TRAIL


A Minority President
George W. Bush "lost the popular vote." So did JFK.

Thursday, November 20, 2003 12:01 a.m. EST

Momentous historical events have a way of putting political spats in perspective. The bitter debate over whether George W. Bush actually won Florida largely ended after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. By the time media recounts, which found that Mr. Bush's victory was indeed legitimate, were released, they seemed like an afterthought.

A similar argument about the photo-finish 1960 election effectively ended with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Until his death, some had plausibly argued that Richard Nixon actually should have had a plurality of the popular vote, even if JFK was legitimately chosen by the Electoral College.

A half dozen historical retrospectives are airing this week to mark the 40th anniversary of the assassination. Several of them mention the contested nature of the 1960 election, which Kennedy won, 303 electoral votes to 219. That margin is deceptively large; the race was so close that the election would have been thrown into the House if Kennedy hadn't won Illinois and Texas by excruciatingly narrow margins. If Nixon had won both states, he would have been elected president.

The results in both states were disputed because Mayor Richard J. Daley and Sen. Lyndon Johnson both had long histories of encouraging voter fraud. A series in the New York Herald-Tribune after the election documented dozens of examples of possible fraud. But Mr. Nixon had already conceded the election, and Democratic judges in both Illinois and Texas struck down lawsuits demanding full recounts.

The effect of potential vote stealing on the outcome of the election was not the only historical argument cut short by Kennedy's assassination.

Kennedy's edge in the nationwide popular vote was the equivalent of less than one vote per precinct. The Associated Press reported that Kennedy's plurality was just 112,827 votes nationwide, a margin of 49.7% to 49.5%. But was Kennedy, like George W. Bush, actually a "minority president," elected without a popular-vote plurality?

It's uncertain because in Alabama, JFK's name didn't actually appear on the ballot. Voters were asked to choose between Nixon and a slate of "unpledged Democrat electors." A statewide primary had chosen five Democratic electors who were "loyalists" pledged to JFK six who were free to vote for anyone.

The Democratic slate defeated Nixon, 324,050 votes to 237,981. In the end, the six unpledged electors voted for Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia, a leading Dixiecrat, and the other five stuck with their pledge to Kennedy. When the Associated Press at the time counted up the popular vote from all 50 states it listed all the Democratic votes, pledged and unpledged, in the Kennedy column. Over the years other counts have routinely assigned all of Alabama's votes to Kennedy.

But scholars say that isn't accurate. "Not all the voters who chose those electors were for Kennedy--anything but," says historian Albert Southwick. Humphrey Taylor, the current chairman of the polling firm Louis Harris & Associates (which worked for Kennedy in 1960), acknowledges that in Alabama "much of the popular vote . . . that is credited to Kennedy's line to give him a small plurality nationally" is dubious. "Richard Nixon seems to have carried the popular vote narrowly, while Kennedy won in the Electoral College," he concludes.

Congressional Quarterly, the respected nonpartisan chronicler of Washington politics, spent some effort in the 1960s to come up with a fair way of counting Alabama's votes. Reporter Neil Pierce took the highest vote cast for any of the 11 Democratic electors in Alabama--324,050--and divided it proportionately between Kennedy and the unpledged electors who ended up voting for Harry Byrd.

Using that method, Kennedy was given credit for 5/11ths of the Democratic total, or 147,295 votes. Nixon's total in Alabama of 237,981 remained the same. The remaining 176,755 votes were counted as being for the unpledged electors.

With these new totals for Alabama factored in with the vote counts for the other 49 states, Nixon has a 58,181-vote plurality, edging out Kennedy 34,108,157 votes to 34,049,976. Using that calculation the 1960 election was even closer than we thought.

Remember this the next time a Democrat complains that President Bush "lost the popular vote." As Mr. Southwick told me in 2001, "Camelot was made possible by the Electoral College. The same is true of George W. Bush's presidency. Both were legitimate."

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