The Baily memorandum was circulated among members of the Democratic party in 1956, arguing that Catholic voters were a key demographic that could be harnessed to win elections.
In 1956, Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic nominee for the presidency. John F Kennedy, a senator at the time, wanted to be the vice-presidential candidate. (Kennedy had, in fact, approached Lyndon Johnson to suggest forming a ticket together, but Johnson had turned down the plan.)
Kennedy was up against Estes Kefauver, a senator from Tennessee. The two men fought hard to win the spot on the ticket. As part of Kennedy’s campaign, his friend and fellow Catholic, John Bailey, along with his assistant, Ted Sorensen, wrote and circulated the so-called Bailey Memorandum. The memo aimed to persuade Democratic decision makers that having a Catholic on the ticket would be an advantage.
The Bailey memorandum pointed out the Catholic voters were concentrated in states with plentiful electoral votes, like New York, California, and Massachusetts. Catholic voters were important in big cities, which were increasingly important in national politics. Catholics had traditionally voted for Democrats, but had shifted to the Republican party when Eisenhower ran for president. Putting a Catholic on the ticket could, Bailey argued, swing those voters back to the Democratic party.
The Bailey memorandum argued that there was, in fact, such a thing as a “Catholic voter” and that Catholic voters could be courted as a block. Kennedy walked that idea back just a few years later, when he was running for president.
In a speech in April 1960, Kennedy vehemently denied that he was appealing to “the Catholic vote” and even denied that there was such a thing as a Catholic voter. He said:
Nor am I appealing, as is too often claimed, to a so-called Catholic vote. Even if such a vote exists – which I doubt – I want to make one thing clear again: I want no votes solely on account of my religion. Any voter, Catholic or otherwise, who feels another candidate would be a superior President should support that candidate. I do not want any vote cast for me for such illogical reasons.
Kennedy went on to poke fun at the idea that pollsters were trying to decide how Catholics had voted during a recent primary in Wisconsin. The candidate said that it made about as much sense to look at the impact of different weather conditions on voters as it did to look at their religions.
Years later, though, John Bailey, the man whose name is on the Bailey memorandum, said that he stood behind the memo’s conclusions.
In an interview with the JFK Library, Bailey argued that Kennedy’s victory in 1960 proved that the memo had been right:
I might say that in l960 this report was proved to be true because it was the states that we said Jack Kennedy would have helped the ticket in l956. And I think this is the truth and I think that if Kennedy had been the candidate for the vice presidency in l956 that Stevenson would have run better in a good many states.