Exactly 50 years ago today, John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States. At 43, the youngest person ever elected, JFK defeated Richard Nixon in one of the closest elections of the 20th century. But for about a year before election day, LIFE photographers shadowed the campaign trail, documenting rallies, small soapbox speeches and quieter family moments.
Historical photos show that Kennedy was zealous, handsome, young and charismatic; and his campaign was, similarly, engaging and dynamic — if not divisive. This collection of photos from LIFE has never been published before now, and paints a fuller picture of what that campaign trail was like for the underdog (LIFE endorsed Nixon during the campaign), who skirted in as the winner with a mere 113,000 votes.
On Nov. 8, 1960, 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in one of the closest presidential elections in history. "LIFE" photographers chronicled moments like this one: Kennedy talking strategy on the campaign trail, Sept. 1960.
In late 1959, well before receiving the Democratic Party's nomination for president, Kennedy, the junior senator from Massachusetts, chats with Ted Sorensen on a train in Wisconsin. Sorensen, who died recently, became famous as JFK's primary speechwriter.
Robert W. Kelley/LIFE
John F. Kennedy campaigning in Illinois in 1960. Kennedy had certain undeniable advantages: His age, his looks, his war stories and his charisma.
Legendarily stylish, Kennedy's wife Jacqueline was 12 years younger than her husband — and gave birth to John Fitzerald Kennedy Jr. less than three weeks after the election.
In Sept. 1960, Kennedy accepted an invitation to speak before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association — to address assumptions that he, as a Catholic, would be following orders from Rome. "I am not the Catholic candidate for president," he told the audience. "I am the Democratic Party candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic."
Even when alone, campaigning candidates never enjoy true solitude. Here, surrounded by people, JFK stares out at the New York Harbor in October 1960. Kennedy defeated Nixon by a scant 113,000 votes out of more than 68 million ballots cast.