Several Democratic leaders sought the nomination, but the race was between three main candidates: Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, and Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey.
Initially, Kennedy was not taken seriously because he was young and Catholic, and had to convince party leaders he could win the general election. No Catholic had ever served as President of the United States, and it proved to be a difficult challenge to overcome for Al Smith in the 1928 election, when he lost the election primarily because of his religious beliefs. Despite this, Kennedy was popular with the public and the media. When he defeated Humphrey in the West Virginia primary, a state where anti-Catholic sentiments were widespread, Kennedy proved his ability to win. When Humphrey sensed he was beginning to lose traction, he challenged Kennedy to a debate. Kennedy initially declined, but eventually agreed to a televised debate. The general consensus was that Kennedy won the debate, and Humphrey soon withdrew from the race.
Shortly before the Democratic National Convention, Lyndon B. Johnson and former presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson joined the competition. However, Kennedy easily won the nomination, and in a surprising move, he chose the second-place candidate, Johnson, to be his running mate.
The first televised presidential debates took place between Nixon and Kennedy beginning that fall. At the first debate, Nixon came across looking sick and nervous, while Kennedy looked calm and confident. The two candidates were well matched, but most viewers felt Kennedy won the debates, and many who listened to the radio broadcast of the debates thought Nixon won. A total of four presidential debates between the two major candidates took place before the 1960 election
President Eisenhower did little to help Nixon's campaign, even unintentionally hurting it with an offhand remark. He did attempt to campaign for Nixon right before Election Day, earning additional support for the Republican Party candidate. But the economic recession had hurt the Republicans, and President Eisenhower was viewed as responsible for the conditions, which also hurt Nixon's chances of winning.
The election of 1960 was the first presidential election in which Alaska and Hawaii participated. Kennedy gained an early lead, but the race was close. Nixon soon caught up, with voters in the rural parts of the country, the Midwest, and the West Coast. Kennedy won the election with 303 electoral votes, though the popular vote was closer and was met with controversy. Many of Nixon's supporters believed he had won because of voter fraud in Texas and Illinois, but Nixon refused to contest the election.
Several unpledged electors from Mississippi and Alabama, who disliked both major candidates and their pro-civil rights views, cast protest votes for Harry F. Byrd and Strom Thurmond, both segregationist leaders. One faithless elector from Oklahoma also cast his vote for Byrd, choosing Barry Goldwater from Arizona as vice president.
At forty-three years old, John F. Kennedy became the youngest person ever elected president. He served until his assassination on November 22, 1963, when he was succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson.