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Remembering Kennedy's micro-targeting in the 1960 election

In the 2012 election, both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney used various technologies -- from television advertising and texting, to social media and data analytics -- to attract specific voters with a targeted message.

But before the onslaught of online ads and fundraising emails, John F. Kennedy pioneered what might have been the first “microtargeting” effort by a presidential campaign in the 1960 election.

Kennedy walked a fine line in the 1960 race between pursuing the support of African-American voters without alienating southern Democrats, said Larry Sabato, author of “The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy”.

“Back in 1960, there was a real battle for the black vote,” Sabato said. “The GOP was still seen as the party of Lincoln in many parts of the country, while JFK’s Democrats had loads of segregationists in powerful posts.”

This balance was threatened in Oct. 1960, when Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for participating in an Atlanta sit-in. Kennedy responded by calling King’s wife, Coretta, to express his concern, while his brother Robert Kennedy arranged for the minister’s release.

The campaign feared that these actions would hurt Kennedy with white southern voters, so they produced a pamphlet on blue paper, which became known as “the blue bomb.” Neither the candidate’s name nor the Democratic Party appeared on the pamphlet, but it still gave Kennedy credit for his sympathetic call by contrasting his actions with Republican nominee Richard Nixon’s silence on the issue.

“In a way that foreshadowed modern politics, the Kennedy campaign effectively targeted African-American voters by touting JFK’s promises on civil rights...” said Michael Beschloss, NBC News presidential historian. 

Staffers distributed approximately two million copies in African American churches across the country just weeks before the election.

“But in a way that would be impossible today, they sent that message…while sending other signals to white Southerners that JFK might not be audacious about civil rights,” Beschloss said.

So while the pamphlet became well known in many African-American communities, it could be overlooked in other areas.

“At the same time, Kennedy’s campaign had plausible deniability for Southern whites,” Sabato said. “JFK needed plenty of electoral votes from Southern segregationist states.”

And on Election Day, he was successful.

Kennedy received 70 percent of the black vote, which helped him win several swing states, including Illinois, Michigan and South Carolina. He even managed to hold onto much of the South. His second best state was Georgia, where he won 63 percent of the vote.

These voting blocs helped Kennedy beat Nixon by 84 electoral votes.

“This was primitive but effective microtargeting,” Sabato said. “To be fair, it was also politics as usual: deceptive and shrewd.”