Newspaper Articles


Charleston Daily Mail
April 14, 1960

W. Va. Poll Rocks Kennedy’s Hopes

Catholic Faith Swaying Many, Group Learns

By Bob Mellace
Daily Mail Political Editor

Supporters of Sen. John F. Kennedy are now confronted by convincing evidence of their worst fear:

His Catholicism is the key issue in his presidential primary race with Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey in Protestant West Virginia.

It overshadows all else. Kennedy knows it now, and he is going to have to make a radical change in his state campaign plans if he is to have a chance in what, at best, is a tough, uphill fight.

Kennedy’s prospects have been clearly defined in a poll conducted yesterday in one of Huntington’s largest wards by the Charleston Daily Mail, Lou Harris, a professional opinion surveyor employed by Sen. Kennedy, and Washington newsman Joseph Alsop whose nationally syndicated column appears in this newspaper.

Kennedy Barely Leads

Alsop is an experienced pollster and the first member of the Washington press corps to employ the door-knocking technique. And on Tuesday, Alsop and Harris polled a southern West Virginia coal town with almost the same results they got in Huntington.

The Fifth Ward poll showed Kennedy barely leading in the popularity contest, 36 to 35, with seven Democrats undecided and two saying they will not vote. In the coal town it was Kennedy 30, Humphrey 27, and 10 undecided.

But it is the undecided vote, accompanied by the strong anti-Catholic support for Humphrey that has the Kennedy camp shaking.

And, according to Harris, both surveys constituted a very large sampling of opinion in such concentrated voting areas, and the pattern was pronounced. He now has survey teams fanning out all over West Virginia to see how widespread it is.

The pattern was set, first, in response to one question. Almost without exception, the 82 Democrats polled knew Sen. Kennedy’s religion; few if any knew Sen. Humphrey’s which is First Congreational.

Prejudice Admitted

A breakdown of the 35 Humphrey votes showed 17 freely and voluntarily admitted they were for the Minnesotan because Sen. Kennedy is a Catholic. And 21 of the 35 said they were Baptists.

Kennedy, on the other hand, got but 12 Baptist votes.

Two Democrats, one a Catholic and the other a Protestant, said they were for Kennedy for religious reasons. The Protestant said he knew Kennedy’s faith was being held against him and he did not think that fair under the U. S. Constitution.

The key finding in the survey, however, is in the number who say they are for Humphrey solely on religious grounds, and the five who are undecided but say they would be for Kennedy except for his religion.

They add up to 22, or more than 25 per cent of the total Democratic sample, and the result was exactly as in the coal town.

Should that pattern hold through the primary election date, May 10, it means that Humphrey will open the polls with 25 per cent of the Democratic vote in his pocket.

For Kennedy, it means he will have to take two-thirds of the remaining 75 per cent, or 2 votes in 3, just to stay even with Humphrey.

Some Hide Feelings

Worse for the Massachusetts senator is the vote that is immeasurable in any poll: the Democrats who would not say so publicly, but who secretly object to his Catholic faith and will vote accordingly in the privacy of the voting booth.

The Fifth Ward in Huntington was selected by the pollsters yesterday for several reasons. One is that it is heavily Democratic; of the 117 residents contacted, only 37 were registered Republicans.

Another is that the Fifth Ward is a medium and low income residential area, with several industries within it, including the American Car Foundry. It extends from 18th St. to 28th St. and from the C. &. O. Railroad tracks to the Ohio River.

It was polled in widely scattered areas, and in every area the pattern was the same: very close, with the religious influence strong. Housewives constituted the majority of those polled in the morning hours, and these were balanced by supper-hour polling of men home from work.

Mostly Working Men

No professionals and very few so-called white collar workers were found. There were a few shop foreman, but most were welders, rollers, laborers, bricklayers, plumbers, etc.

The labor union influence was apparent. Most union members were for Humphrey, bearing out Daily Mail reports that the large labor organizations, while not taking a stand publicly, would be against Kennedy for his vote on the labor act.

What can Kennedy do?

This is a matter for conjecture, but two courses of action are apparent.

He must increase the allotment of 12 days’ campaigning time he had planned for West Virginia.

Far more important, he must meet the religious issue in a way that will swing to his side, if possible, some of the undecided Democratic vote that is hesitant about him because of his religion.

The pollsters, and now Sen. Kennedy, have down in writing all the fears and prejudices of non-Catholics for a Catholic in the highest public office. Kennedy must try to answer, and to explain what he has said before: That in good conscience he can take the oath, which he has taken many times, to support the Constitution of the United States.


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