Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy, "The Presidential Primary and Your Vote," Terre Haute, Indiana, February 6, 1960

You all know what brings me to this state: I am a candidate in your primary for President of the United States. And I would like to take this opportunity to talk with you – not about my own candidacy, but about that Presidential primary, how important it is and how important your individual vote will be. For I strongly urge every citizen of this state – Republicans, Democrats or Independents – whomever they may support – to go to the polls this spring and cast that all-important vote.

“In every American election,” wrote James Bryce more than 80 years ago, “there are two acts of choice, two periods of contest. The first is the selection of the candidate from within the party by the party, the other is the struggle between the parties for the place. Frequently the former of these is the more keenly fought over – (and) the more important.”

Never was this process of selecting a candidate more important – more meaningful than today. For during the coming year we will select not merely a party favorite, but a potential national leader for the fabulous sixties. We will not merely reward faithful service – we will choose a man to be the center of energy and activity in our entire governmental system. Only if the parties choose their candidates well – only then will the American people next November be able to select a man equipped with the qualities which our country, and our age, demand.

In this all-important process of nomination the American people are entitled to a voice. The people of this state – and the people of other states – are entitled to be heard. Fifty years ago, when New Jersey was attempting to establish a Presidential Primary law, one well-known political boss was indignant. The Legislature, he said, as a spokesman for the voters “has no more right to attempt to fix by law the method of selecting delegates to a national convention than it has to attempt to fix the method of selecting delegates to an Eagles Convention or a Rotary conclave.”

But today we know that national conventions are not social gatherings. Political parties are not private clubs. They are at the heart of the democratic process – they are the instrument of the popular will – they are the method, and the best method yet devised, by which the people rule. When they act, they act not merely for themselves but for million. And their actions must be responsive to the will and needs of those they represent.

The days when Presidential candidates – unknown and untested – can be nominated in smoke-filled rooms, by political leaders and party bosses, have forever passed from the scene. Our last experience with such a nomination resulted in the disaster of the Harding Administration. But even Harding entered and won at least one contested primary.

For 50 years, no Republican or Democrat has reached the White House without entering and winning at least one contested primary. No man has wone a national election who was unwilling to test his candidacy with the people. No man has occupied the post of Chief Executive until he first occupied one of several places on the primary ballot.

It is true that conventions have occasionally chosen a candidate who never ran in a contested primary – but such conventions have never produced a President.


In this important primary process, the State of Indiana has played a consistently vital role. The first Presidential Primary law in this state dates all the way back to 1915. Spurred on by reform movements within both parties, the cause of popular government – clean, progressive government – was sweeping the states just as it had helped sweep Woodrow Wilson into office. Bryan, Wilson, LaFollete Beveridge, Kern – all championed the right of the individual voter, the forgotten rank-and-file, to help pick the next President of the United States.

The Democratic Party of Indiana had a primary plank in its platform. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan came out to the state to campaign for it. His running-mate in the 1908 election, Senator John Worth Kern of this state, came back from Washington to urge its passage. Despite the opposition of some political leaders, the Indiana Legislature passed the primary law. And in 1916, the greatest year for Presidential primaries in the history of this country, the year when 22 states had joined the movement, Indiana’s name led all the rest – the first primary of the big primary year, on March 7, 1916.

President Woodrow Wilson won the Democratic Primary of that year without difficulty. And it is a significant fact of history that in every one of the five Presidential election years in which Indiana has had a primary law on the books, the President elected in November was in each case a candidate in the spring Indiana Primary. In 1916, 1920, 1924, and 1928, under the old law, and then in 1956 under the present statute, this nation in every instance elected a man who had run in the Indiana Primary: Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Eisenhower.

I have no reason to doubt that once again, in 1960, the President elected in November will have entered the Indiana Primary this May. I have no reason to believe that a candidate by-passing the Indiana Primary can – for the first time in history – be elected President.

For within this centrally-located state may be found elements of North, South, East and West – cities and farms, villages and industry, prosperity and poverty. If the voters of Indiana do not “love” a candidate in May, neither they nor the nation are likely to “love” him in November.

For the Democrats of Indiana, 1960 will prove to be the first real test of the new primary statute. Although Senator Kefauver carried the state unopposed in 1956, his victory was without effect because of his withdrawal as a Presidential candidate before the Chicago Convention. (He later became a successful candidate for Vice President, as you may recall. I do.)

The new statute – which will bind the Democratic delegates for the first time this year – provides that this state’s delegates to next July’s Democratic Convention at Los Angeles will be pledged to cast their votes on the first ballot for the winner of the May 3rd primary. If the convention goes beyond one ballot, the Indiana delegates would, I am certain, prefer a candidate endorsed by rank-and-file Democrats to one who by-passed this state and its voters.

Even under the old Indiana law, there was some doubt as to how long the results of the primary were legally binding on the delegates. But the Indiana voters of both parties, I am certain, will never forget the story of old Senator Jim Watson at the 1920 Republican National Convention. The winner of the Indiana Primary that year was General Leonard O. Wood. But because he won only a plurality not a majority, many Indiana delegates considered their instructions to be something less than firm. Senator Watson was never for General Wood. From the beginning he favored his Senate colleague from Ohio, Warren Harding. As a prominent Republican Senator – serving in that convention as Chairman of the Resolutions Committee – he could hardly afford to stay with the losing side – particularly when he did not believe in it. But ten ballots were cast in that convention before Harding was selected, more behind the scenes than on the floor – and for ten ballots Jim Watson voted as he believed his duty directed: for Leonard Wood. (There are some who say, of course, that he was meanwhile persuading other Indiana delegates to desert Wood for Harding – but to substantiate that charge requires a degree of understanding of Indiana politics no outsider can ever hope to possess.)

But, in any event, even though the new law specifically binds for one ballot only, I feel that – with this history – the Indiana Primary is an important one – important to the nation and important in its recognition of the voters’ rights. No serious Presidential candidate should pass up this primary – and no serious citizen of Indiana should pass up his chance to vote on May the 3rd.

For even if the choice of candidates is limited, this primary campaign is important to every voter in this state. Only by taking part in this historic event can the people of Indiana express their views on those critical issues of the sixties which so vitally affect the welfare of your state.

– whether we can achieve a world of peace and freedom in place of the fantastically dangerous and expensive arms race in which we are now falling behind.

– whether we can spur the nation’s economic growth to provide a more secure life for all Americans, regardless of race, creed or national origin, including a higher minimum wage, better social security, medical care for the aged, and a better break for the mentally ill. The decline in Indiana’s coal employment – which has affected this area so vitally – is part of a nationwide revolution in new fuels and new machines – a revolution with benefits we welcome but with consequences we cannot ignore.

– whether better weapons against monopoly and racketeering, lower gas, oil and utility prices, and lower interest rates on installment purchases and the national debt can be obtained to help the consumers of Indiana and the country battle the high costs of inflation and government.

– whether the farmers of Indiana, neglected by Secretary Benson, can obtain some relief from the agonizing squeeze of every higher costs and ever lower income.

– whether our food surpluses can help us build a more stable peace abroad and feed our hungry here at home instead of wasting in warehouses at the taxpayers’ expense.

– whether the children of Indiana and the nation can obtain safe, decent adequate public school facilities, with competent well-paid teachers. In this city of three colleges, not far from two major universities, you have recognized that in the education of our youth lies our hope for the future.


These are some of the issues of importance to your state in 1960. These are some of the issues I intend to discuss. And I regret that more candidates in both parties will not join me here in that discussion. For primary contests not only educate the public – they educate the candidate as well.

For if a candidate wishes to understand the needs and aspirations of the people he seeks to serve – he must go among them. He must view the cities and towns and factories and farms first hand – not merely read second-hand reports from local supporters or look at the nation through the wrong end of a television camera. He must campaign in all sections of the country – the East, the West, and the Far West – if he is to understand the problems of all sections – and not merely his own. He must listen as well as talk, see as well as be seen, learn as well as teach. And the primary is the greatest instrument there is for that kind of education. For after the nomination it is often too late – for the canidate and for the country.

I am sorry that in 1960 there are some in both parties who regard Presidential primary contests with indifference. They have forgotten the lessons of history – that only those candidates with faith and confidence in the people and their wisdom can count on receiving that faith and confidence at the polls in November. They have forgotten the words of Thomas Jefferson that there are always, in effect, “two parties. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to (take) all power from them – (and) those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them as the most honest and safe depository of the public interest.”

Jefferson would have approved of this primary. He would have urged you to cast your ballot in it. I hope you will be true to that heritage.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 906, "'The Presidential Primary and Your Vote,' Terre Haute, Indiana, 6 February 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.