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The highlight of the 1956 Democratic Convention came when Stevenson, in an effort to create excitement for the ticket, made the surprise announcement that the convention's delegates would choose his running mate. This set off a desperate scramble among several candidates to win the nomination; a good deal of the excitement of the vice-presidential race came from the fact that the candidates had only one hectic day to campaign among the delegates before the voting began. The two leading contenders were Senator Kefauver, who retained the support of his primary delegates, and young Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who was relatively unknown at that point. Although Stevenson privately preferred Senator Kennedy to be his running mate, he did not attempt to influence the balloting for Kennedy in any way. Kennedy surprised the experts by surging into the lead on the second ballot; at one point he was only 15 votes shy of winning. However, a number of states then left their "favorite son" candidates and switched to Kefauver, giving him the victory. Kennedy then gave a gracious concession speech. The defeat was actually a boost for Kennedy's long-term presidential chances; by coming so close to defeating Kefauver he gained much favorable national publicity, yet by losing to Kefauver he avoided any blame for Stevenson's expected loss to Eisenhower in November.
Stevenson campaigned hard against Eisenhower, with television ads for the first time being the dominant medium for both sides. Because Eisenhower's 1952 election victory was due, in large part, to winning the female vote, there were a plethora of "housewife" focused ads.
Stevenson proposed significant increases in government spending for social programs and treaties with the Soviet Union to lower military spending and end nuclear testing on both sides. He also proposed to end the military draft and switch to an "all-volunteer" military. Eisenhower publicly opposed these ideas, even though in private he was working on a proposal to ban atmospheric nuclear testing. Eisenhower had retained the enormous personal and political popularity he had earned during the Second World War, and he maintained a comfortable lead in the polls throughout the campaign.
Eisenhower was also helped by two foreign-policy crises that developed in the weekend before the election. In Soviet-occupied People's Republic of Hungary, many citizens rose up in revolt against the Soviet Army; their revolt was brutally crushed within a few days by Soviet troops. In Egypt, a combined force of Israeli, British, and French troops seized the Suez Canal; Eisenhower condemned the seizure and pressured the allied forces to return the canal to Egyptian control. These two events led many Americans to rally in support of the President, thus swelling his expected margin of victory. The Eisenhower administration had also supported the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954; this ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court ended legal segregation in public schools. As a result, Eisenhower won the support of nearly 40% of black voters; he was the last Republican presidential candidate to receive such a level of support from black voters.
On election day Eisenhower took over 57% of the popular vote and won 41 of the 48 states. Stevenson won only six Southern states and the border state of Missouri, becoming the first losing candidate since 1900 (William Jennings Bryan vs. McKinley) to carry the Show-Me-State. Eisenhower carried Louisiana, making him the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state since Reconstruction in 1876.