In regions of eastern Pennsylvania, the Kennedy Democrats of 1960 are today’s Trump Republicans—a voting bloc that could largely determine this year’s election.
Sixty years ago today, with a presidential election looming, John F. Kennedy embarked on a brutal, 18-hour campaign tour of eastern Pennsylvania. The state, then possessing 32 Electoral College votes, was crucial for Kennedy to win against Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee. In the industrial cities and towns that Kennedy’s campaign targeted, it was an exuberant season—and would prove more so after his subsequent victory, especially for those Catholics who viewed the Democratic candidate’s triumph as a kind of cultural enfranchisement.
Decades later, in 2016, descendants of those Kennedy supporters were pivotal to Donald Trump’s Pennsylvania victory. As it happens, they reside in the same areas—the anthracite coal region and Lehigh Valley—that were the keystone to Kennedy’s win. Next Tuesday, these voters—battered by a pandemic, divided by tumult—will decide if Trump wins a second term, or if Joe Biden becomes America’s second Catholic president. As Election Day nears, revisiting that Friday in late October 1960 makes for a rendezvous with Pennsylvania’s electoral past—one that helps explain the state’s important role in 2020.
Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, described October 28, 1960 as “the wildest day of the campaign.” The chaotic schedule was necessary in a state that was too close to call. It began at 1 AM Friday, when Kennedy’s plane—named “Caroline,” after his daughter—landed at an airport in the Lehigh Valley. His delayed arrival followed a packed day in New York, where he drew hundreds of thousands in the city’s boroughs. Even at that late hour, though, Kennedy drew a large crowd, which gathered around his open convertible. “It took nearly 20 policemen to open a hole through the throngs and clear the path,” one paper reported.