Thursday, November 2, 2023

This Day in Presidential History (Truman Stuns Dewey in Whistle-Stop Win)

Nov. 2, 1948—Harry Truman went to bed this night with most observers predicting he would lose the election badly to Republican challenger Thomas Dewey

But, in a result that astonished politicians, pundits, and pollsters who’d written him off long before, the President pulled off probably the greatest electoral upset in the 20th century, leading Dewey to concede at 11 o’clock the following morning.

The New York governor could have been forgiven if he had started measuring the drapes in preparation for moving into the White House. 

Dewey had been a successful mob-busting Manhattan prosecutor before winning two gubernatorial races in the nation’s most populous state; had prior experience as a Presidential candidate, running a creditable campaign against the formidable Franklin Roosevelt; and headed a Republican Party far more firmly united than Truman’s Democrats, who were suffering schisms on its left wing by Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party and on the right by Strom Thurmond’s states-rights (or “Dixiecrat”) Party.

Even at the Philadelphia convention that nominated him, some cynics had carried signs parodying the Missourian’s campaign tune: “I’m just mild about Harry.”

Why, then, did Truman emerge victorious? 

Historians would later point out that he’d cobbled together, for the last truly cohesive time, the New Deal coalition of urban ethnics, union members and southern whites that had sustained Roosevelt; that he’d achieved wider margins in the Midwest and West than anyone expected; and that, in contrast to the open, frank nature that made Truman a natural on the stump, Dewey was so infuriatingly reserved that tart-tongued Alice Roosevelt Longworth had dubbed him “the man on the wedding cake.”

All of that, to one degree or another, is true. 

But I have another theory why he won.

Faced with adversity, Truman displayed an intelligence, equanimity, and unwillingness to buckle under pressure that had served him well at key moments in adulthood, such as when he led his battery under fire in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in WWI and won his reelection campaign as U.S. senator from Missouri in 1940 against the state’s popular governor. 

He had made one tough decision in the Oval Office after the death of FDR: dropping the atomic bomb, launching the Berlin Airlift, recognizing the new state of Israel, and desegregating the armed forces.

No wonder his future Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, came to think of him as “the captain with the mighty heart.”

Perhaps nothing epitomized his battling, never-say-die spirit better than his famous “whistle-stop campaign” in 1948. 

From July to October, the President launched three major tours totaling 31 days through much of the country, delivering a series of brief, peppery broadsides from the back of his train against the “do-nothing Congress” controlled by the GOP that had stymied much of his domestic “Fair Deal” legislation.

During his initial difficult months taking over from FDR, Republicans had joked “To err is Truman.” Three years later, and to the end of his Presidency, they would gripe that he was hyperpartisan. 

Yet, as a student of history, he believed that the duties of his office required him to refrain from pandering to people’s worst instincts. Voters, seeing the man up front, identified with his plain speaking and unpretentious nature. 

In the crucial run-up to the election, ordinary citizens came to respect and admire this veteran politician who refused to be counted out.

To their deep subsequent regret, the one group that did not suspect Truman was shifting the electorate his way were the major pollsters, George Gallup and Elmo Roper.

Polling had advanced since 1936, they insisted, when Liberty Digest, working from an inadequate sample size, had wrongly predicted a victory for Alf Landon over FDR. (The Kansas governor lost in a landslide.) 

But, despite Truman’s gain of seven percentage points against Dewey from August to October, Gallup was so certain the President would lose that he stopped taking surveys two weeks before the election.

 As for Roper, in visiting journalism students at Columbia University, he had even “explained the infallibility of the sampling process” used for the 1948 campaign, recalled student Patricia Christiansen in a retrospective for the Fall 2008 issue of Columbia Magazine

All of that lulled an overconfident Dewey to conduct a platitude-laden, content-free campaign in the crucial closing weeks.

All of them were wrong—spectacularly so, to the delight of Truman, who, in the famous image accompanying this post, let them know it, in unmistakable fashion.

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