Nixon made a major mistake in functioning as his own campaign manager, and ignored advice, foolishly promising to campaign in all 50 states. Very soon into the foolhardy venture, Nixon banged his knee on a car door (he was a tremendous klutz), and was hospitalized for two weeks with a serious staph infection that almost cost him his leg. Then, when Nixon tried to make up for lost time on the campaign trail, he developed a temperature of 103 degrees.
Nixon arrived in Chicago just before midnight on 25 September 1960 for the first-ever televised Presidential debate with Kennedy. Nixon was still sick and exhausted, and had lost ten pounds. On the way to the studio the next day, Nixon again banged the same knee on a car door . . . Nixon was in agonizing pain wondering what could possibly go wrong next while JFK had spent the day sunning, napping, and listening to music.
Nixon and Kennedy were tied in the polls before their first debate, and 80 million Americans watched, the largest TV audience since Nixon's "Checkers" speech in 1952 and the Army-McCarthy Hearings in 1954. As later events would show, newsmen had been, and were doing the bidding of the Kennedys at Nixon's expense. While Nixon came across poorly on television during the first debate, Nixon more than held his own in the next three encounters with JFK. The debates were not decisive in the campaign (despite what almost every news media outlet and political pundit has claimed), other than JFK being seen as a more mature leader as a result of the first debate . . . what really led to Nixon's defeat in 1960 occurred offstage.
(Below: the entire first debate between JFK and Nixon)
One of JFK's advisers, Sargent Shriver, convinced JFK to call Coretta Scott King, who was understandably concerned for her husband's safety and life, in order to offer his assistance (RFK was livid when he found out, but quickly figured out that he could use the situation for political advantage). JFK, and especially RFK, were active in gaining MLK Jr.'s release . . . and letting the media know that they did so (as did MLK, Jr. on his release). Nixon, however, feared white backlash in the South, and he tried to get the Eisenhower administration to announce that the Attorney General would investigate MLK, Jr.'s arrest.
If the release of MLK, Jr. from prison was a 45 rpm record, side one would be titled "JFK Called Mrs. King", while side two would be called "Richard Nixon Did Not". The shift among African-American voters to JFK from Nixon was swift and significant, especially in the industrial Midwest and Northeast, where JFK would win key states by narrow margins. Nixon learned that he had badly miscalculated only when it was far too late (he was apprised of the situation from his African-American driver). Nixon was surprised and upset that he had lost what he considered to be a hard-earned and rock-solid constituency with the African-American voting bloc.
JFK lived very close and was friends with Ben Bradlee, at the time a Newsweek reporter (who became one of the great Nixon-haters at the Washington Post). JFK was also close to
Katharine Graham (soon to become the first female CEO in US History); Graham often threw parties for the Kennedys, and invited the Georgetown Set (of which she was part) as well as Establishment media figures as Walter Lippmann and James Reston. There wasn't a person at those parties that could stand the thought of a Nixon victory in the Election of 1960.
Nixon couldn't possibly compete with JFK in the press, and reporters were often savage against him, their hatred and contempt open for all to see/read. Nixon's portrayal in the press had become so awful and distorted that he felt he had no choice but to suspend press conferences for the rest of his campaign for the Presidency.
Nixon, in politely declining Ike's offer to campaign on his behalf, acted and behaved nobly without explanation. What was at work as well was Nixon's near-pathological fear of personal confrontation, which not only cost him in the Election of 1960, but also when he was President. Others have argued that Nixon wanted to win the Presidency on his own without Ike's help so he could be his own "political man", which was probably true as well.
Between the Republican National Convention and Election Day, Nixon traveled 65,000 miles and gave 180 formal speeches in his manic-and-foolhardy quest to fulfill his promise to campaign in all 50 states. In the end, three factors tipped the Election of 1960 to JFK's favor: first was Nixon losing far-too-many African-American votes due his far-too-passive pursuit in gaining MLK, Jr.'s release from prison. Secondly, JFK had 75% of the Catholic vote, which galled Nixon to no end, in that he believed the Kennedys made religion an issue to their advantage, while he never made being a Quaker a big deal at all. And third, there were nasty (and long since accepted as fact) rumors of shenanigans in Illinois (spearheaded by Mayor Richard Daley) and in Texas (led by JFK's running mate, Lyndon Johnson) . . . despite everything else, had Nixon won Illinois and Texas, he would have had 270 Electoral Votes, one more than what was needed (to be fair, there were Republican shenanigans in precincts in southern Illinois, so nobody really wore the halo of the politically righteous in 1960).
In Chicago, a switch of just 4500 votes would have given Nixon the state of Illinois and all 27 Electoral Votes. The charges against Mayor Daley were rampant (and again, have long since been accepted) of "Graveyard Votes"; in one mostly African-American precinct, there were more votes cast for JFK than there were people living in the district. Leading Republicans such as Senator Everett Dirksen (Ill) urged Nixon to challenge the results in Illinois and Texas.
By mid-December 1960, Nixon had confirmed what he had originally thought: challenging the results would make him look like a sore loser while placing a cloud over JFK's Presidency (as well as forever disqualifying him for a future run as President). Even before then, Nixon met with JFK on 14 November 1960 at the Key Biscayne Hotel; JFK was extremely worried that Nixon would challenge results in states such as Illinois and Texas. Once again Nixon did the right and honorable thing, showing grace when in an awkward situation . . . Nixon told JFK that he needn't worry about any challenges . . . as far as he was concerned, the election was over. On 6 January 1961, in his last official function as Vice-President, Richard Nixon presided over the Electoral College vote, and announced the official results of JFK 303, Nixon 219, and Senator Harry F. Byrd (VA) 15 . . . ironically, Byrd was never a candidate for President, but received anti-Civil Rights "protest" votes from Democratic Electors.
Below: Before JFK had to campaign against Nixon, he had to deal with
LBJ for the nomination of the Democratic Party for President