On November 8, 1960, millions of Americans went to the polls in what would become one of the closest Presidential elections in American History: John Fitzgerald Kennedy versus Richard Milhous Nixon.
That morning, Kennedy voted in Boston and Nixon voted in Whittier, California. The candidates had spent months canvassing the nation, working to get every last vote — and every last vote was needed. For the past several weeks, Kennedy and Nixon had criss-crossed the country, debated one another, and been working non-stop to be elected the 35th President of the United States.
After they voted that day, there were results to monitor, precincts to watch, election day problems to take care of, and many other things to worry about. Imagine being on the cusp of the Presidency — with a 50/50 chance of being elected the next President of a superpower in the grip of the Cold War, with the threat of Communism and nuclear weapons hanging over your head, and the hopes of hundreds of millions of people pinned on either your victory or defeat. Imagine being in the position of John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon on November 8, 1960. What would you do?
John F. Kennedy put the control of his campaign in the hands of his younger brother, Bobby, and then took a nap.
And Richard Nixon took a road trip to Mexico.
Once Nixon voted that morning at a private home in a quiet Whittier neighborhood, he had been scheduled to head to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (where Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated eight years later) for the Election Day vigil and the long wait for the returns which would indicate whether he would be moving into the White House or facing an early retirement.
Nixon was finished voting by 8:00 AM and hopped into his black Cadillac limousine to be driven to the Ambassador. Several blocks away from the polling place, Nixon ordered the limousine to stop. Along with a military aide and a Secret Service agent, Nixon jumped out of the limo and into a white convertible follow-up car driven by an officer from the Los Angeles Police Department. Nixon took the LAPD officer’s place, got behind the wheel and ditched the press which had been following him.
Driving to La Habra, California, Nixon made a quick visit with his mother, making sure she had voted for her son in the Presidential election. Nixon drove south along the Pacific Coast Highway, with no specific destination. He stopped for gasoline in Oceanside and told a gas station attendant — startled to see the Vice President of the United States on a joyride on the very day that he stood for election as President — “I’m just out for a little ride.” Nixon confided that it was his only source of relaxation.
As the group of four men, with Nixon in the driver’s seat, reached San Diego — over two hours away from Nixon’s campaign headquarters at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel — Nixon pointed out that he hadn’t been to Tijuana in at least 25 years.
As David Pietrusza wrote in his recap of Nixon’s road trip, “Richard Nixon — the ultimate control freak — was winging it on the most important day of his life.” Not only that, but the sitting Vice President of the United States and the man who many Americans were choosing to become the next President, impulsively decided to leave the entire country while those voters were still at the polls.
In Tijuana, Nixon and his party headed to a restaurant called Old Heidelberg. Despite the fact it was owned by a German, Border Patrol agents told Nixon that it was the best place in Tijuana for Mexican food. Joined at the last moment by Tijuana’s Mayor, Xicotencati Leyva Aleman, Nixon, his military aide, a Secret Service agent, and an average LAPD officer ate enchiladas in Mexico while John F. Kennedy took a nap in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
When Nixon’s press secretary Herb Klein was asked about the missing candidate, he had to tell reporters that Nixon often took some private moments on hectic days such as Election Day. Really, though, Klein had no clue where Nixon was, eventually admitting that the Vice President was “driving around without any destination”.
After lunch in Tijuana, Nixon and his companions headed back north towards the United States border crossing. The LAPD officer took over driving duties as Nixon sat in the convertible’s passenger seat. A shocked Border Patrol guard shook hands with the Vice President and asked the man who was currently on the ballot for the Presidency, “Are you all citizens of the United States?”.
Nixon and company drove to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano, which Nixon called “one of my favorite Catholic places” on the day he faced the only successful Catholic candidate for the Presidency in American History. Nixon took his three companions on a quick, informal tour of the Mission. “For a few minutes, we sat in the empty pews for an interlude of complete escape,” Nixon later recalled.
The missing candidate and his three road trip buddies arrived back in Los Angeles before the election results started rolling in. Nixon had to explain his trip to reporters who had been searching for him all day. “It wasn’t planned. We just started driving and that’s where we wound up.”
In his Memoirs, Nixon didn’t go too far into explaining why he escaped on Election Day, but a paragraph about that day is pretty illuminating:
”After one last frenetic week, it was over. Since the convention in August I had traveled over 65,000 miles and visited all fifty states. I had made 180 scheduled speeches and delivered scores of impromptu talks and informal press conferences. There was nothing more I could have done.”
Except escape to Mexico while JFK slept.
It’s really tough. They are the longest hours of your life. You are so tired. You just want the goddamned thing over. The most grueling campaign was 1960 because of the mistake I made with the 50-state strategy…In ‘68, I just drove around on Election Day. The day is the worst because there isn’t a goddamn thing you can do. I watched people drive by, and I thought, ‘How many of these people did I reach?’ You really wonder because inside you are paralyzed with worry. You want to think that all of the effort was worth something to somebody.
Richard Nixon, to Monica Crowley, on what goes through a Presidential candidate’s mind on Election Day, October 30, 1992
Wait a second…where’s the bouncer? There’s no Canadians allowed here. (Before a bunch of people from Saskatchewan announce that they are unfollowing me, I’m kidding.)
Honestly, Election Day is the first Tuesday in November for most positions because it makes sense financially. I believe that Presidential and Congressional elections are the only ones actually mandated by law to take place on the first Tuesday in November, but for state-level positions and local-level positions it just makes sense to hold elections on the same day because elections are expensive events to have. Plus, ideally, it would be awesome to have as many voters get out to the polls as possible, so it’s less confusing to have all elections take place on the same day every year.
Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t elections that take place on other dates. Even if you take away primary elections, which normally take place early in the year of the general election (and those primary election dates differ from state-to-state), state and local elections can also be held at different times of year. It’s up to the state or local municipality that has jurisdiction over the election. (And that’s not even taken into consideration early voting or absentee balloting, which also differs throughout the country depending on your location.)
As for the ballots, well, that can be confusing, too. There is no uniform ballot for federal, state, or local elections. That’s usually different from county-to-county, depending on the state. Not only that, but the means for registering differs from state-to-state. And the actual WAY that you vote is different from one locality to another. In California, where I voted for 12 years, there are counties that have computer stations to fill out ballots, punch cards, manual ballots where you fill in a bubble like you’re taking a test, and other types of voting equipment. It all depends where you live.
You want to know what a crazy Election Day was? In 2003, when I lived in California, there was an election to decide whether to recall Governor Gray Davis — the election that resulted in Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming Governor. So, the first decision on the ballot was to vote “Yes” or “No” on recalling Governor Davis (I voted “No”). The second decision was to vote for a candidate for Governor to replace Governor Davis if the recall succeeded. Now, even if you voted “No” to recall Davis, you could still choose a potential successor. Because the recall was a goddamn circus there were 135 candidates for Governor to choose from — all on one ballot. That’s right…ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-FIVE candidates. Take that, Canada.
I’m pretty sure that I don’t remember what it’s like to not live in the midst of an all-encompassing political campaign. Then again, considering how campaigns seem to begin earlier and earlier in 21st Century American politics, I wouldn’t be surprised if the midterm cycle kicks off this afternoon.
(P.S.: I better not see stories about potential 2016 Presidential candidates until AT LEAST Inauguration Day. In a perfect world, we’d be safe from starting that discussion until late-2014.)