DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN! So said the huge headline of the Chicago Tribune on November 3, 1948, a headline that was to become arguably the most erroneous, embarrassing and infamous newspaper headline in political history. More on this later.
The second of my series of historically significant and controversial presidential elections was the contest between President Harry S. Truman and NY Governor Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. This election was, without a doubt, the biggest presidential election upset in history. From the very beginning of the campaign and right up to Election Day virtually every political commentator and analyst and all the pollsters projected Dewey as the winner. As we will see, all the “experts” were wrong.
Dewey was the sitting governor of NY and the acknowledged head of the progressive/moderate wing of the GOP. Dewey rose to prominence in the 1930s when, as a special prosecutor in NYC, he vigorously and relentlessly pursued various heads of organized crime. The pinnacle of his success came in 1936 when he successfully prosecuted Lucky Luciano, the head of the Mafia. Moreover, he was hot on the trail of Luciano’s key lieutenant, Dutch Schultz, when Schultz was murdered (presumably by the Mob to silence him). In 1942 he was elected governor of NY and was re-elected in 1946. In 1944 the GOP had nominated him for president, but he lost to FDR. The GOP nominated him again in 1948, although not before he fended off brief challenges from Robert Taft, Earl Warren, Douglas MacArthur and Arthur Vandenberg. In addition, there was a grassroots movement to “draft” war hero Dwight Eisenhower. That fizzled when Ike declined, stating that soldiers should stay out of politics. (Apparently, four years later he changed his mind.)
Truman had owned a haberdashery in Kansas City, Missouri when he decided to enter politics. (For bonus points, what does Truman’s middle initial stand for? See below.) After serving as a county official, he was elected to the US Senate in 1935. He rose to prominence in the early 1940s when he served as chairman of what became known as the Truman Committee, which successfully exposed and rooted out corruption, waste and fraud in the Federal Government’s wartime industrial contracts. This so impressed FDR and his advisors, that when they were looking to replace VP Henry Wallace on the ticket in 1944 they chose him. This was viewed as a critical choice. Since FDR was generally not expected to survive the entire upcoming term, there was an excellent chance that his running mate would turn out to be his successor as president. FDR did, in fact, die in April 1945, after which Truman ascended to the presidency. In 1948 Truman was seeking election in his own right.
Truman’s campaign ran into trouble right away. Truman was not popular, even within his own party. Many believe he only won the nomination because the Dem party leaders could not find anyone better. (They also approached Ike, who declined, making him, as far as I know, the only candidate to have declined to run for each of the major parties in the same election cycle.) The dissatisfied far left and far right wings of the Party each nominated their own candidates, Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond, respectively, who figured to siphon off votes from Truman. In particular, the far right “Dixicrats” were a major threat to derail the Dems in the southern states, which were crucial to a Dem victory.
No wonder everyone thought Dewey was a sure winner.
So how and why did Truman win? Why was it such a huge shock? In my opinion, it was a combination of Dewey’s mistakes, Truman’s strong campaign and inaccurate polling. For instance:
- Dewey ran a very tepid campaign, focusing on avoiding mistakes. His speeches were laughingly vague. He avoided discussing the major issues, such as communist expansion and the economy and how he would deal with them. He uttered meaningless platitudes, such as “your future is still ahead of you.” (Maybe Yogi Berra was his speech writer.) This strategy, the sports equivalent of “running out the clock” or “freezing the ball,” rarely, if ever, works in sports or politics.
- On the other hand, Truman was very aggressive. Having nothing to lose, he came out swinging. He ridiculed Dewey. He labeled the GOP-controlled Congress as the “do-nothing Congress.” At times, his campaign stops turned raucous, with people shouting out encouragement, such as “give ’em hell, Harry.” Dewey failed to respond to any of these attacks.
- The polling was inaccurate. In particular, pollsters failed to recognize Truman’s late surge because they did not continue to poll right up through Election Day. According to the Gallup polls, Truman had narrowed Dewey’s lead from 17 points in mid-September to five points by the end of October, which was within the margin for error. Roper suspended polling in early September. Many columnists, including the renowned Joseph Alsop, Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, among others, wrote their post election analyses weeks before the election.
- Even Truman must have had doubts. Rather than watch the election returns with his staff he sneaked away from reporters. He went to the Elms Hotel in Excelsior Springs, MO where he treated himself to a Turkish bath and dinner and went to bed early.
- Even when Truman took an early lead on election night pundits, refused to believe he could win, predicting a late Dewey surge. The Chicago Tribune’s mistake was not the only embarrassing error, but because of the famous picture of Truman holding up the headline the next day, it’s just the one we remember.
- Truman won several states, such as Ohio, California and Illinois, by less than one percent, so just a few switched votes here and there would have swung the election to Dewey.
The pollsters learned their lesson. Since that election, they have continued to poll right up to the end.
That election changed the course of history. Historians generally rate Truman as one of the best presidents. Had Dewey won, we can only speculate as to how he would have handled the major issues of the day, such as communist expansion and civil rights. Would there have been a Marshall Plan which helped rebuild a Europe devastated by WWII and checked communist expansion? Would Ike have run in 1952? What of Nixon , JFK and all the others who followed? We will never know, which is what makes it so intriguing.
Note: Truman had no middle name, just the initial “S.”