On May 10, 1960, John F. Kennedy defeated Hubert Humphrey in the most important presidential primary ever held in West Virginia. Kennedy, a Catholic, had won the Wisconsin Democratic primary a month earlier. However, some attributed his success to Wisconsin’s relatively large percentage of Catholics.
West Virginia was an overwhelmingly Protestant state, and there were doubts whether JFK could win here. And if he couldn’t win enough Protestant votes in a Democratic primary, there were serious doubts he could win enough support to beat Republican Richard Nixon in the general election.
The West Virginia primary was hard-fought on the airwaves and on the ground. Kennedy, Humphrey, and their supporters campaigned for months. Kennedy-family money poured into West Virginia in record amounts. Foreshadowing today’s expensive media campaigns, the underfunded Humphrey later compared his challenge against JFK to “an independent merchant running against a chain store.”
Kennedy won the West Virginia primary by more than 20 points, and Humphrey dropped out of the race. Kennedy went on to win the Democratic nomination and carry West Virginia in the general election. He always credited the Mountain State for making him president.