Whenever a candidate in any type of election is trailing in the polls before Election Day, the surprise result of the 1948 Presidential Election is referenced. However, the events of 1948 are unlikely ever to replicated today. Zachary Karabell’s book about the election, written back in 2000, shows how changes in the way candidates communicate the public make it almost impossible for anyone to pull off a comeback like Harry Truman did.
Harry Truman’s first term in office was far from smooth as he had to steer a postwar economy while working with a Republican majority in Congress. The Republicans, out of office since 1933, were determined to pass legislation to frustrate the core constituency of the Democrats, organized labor, with the Taft-Hartley Act, which placed numerous restrictions on union organizing and the right to strike. It went into law after Congress overrode a Truman veto.
(Most of the links in this piece will take you to YouTube videos of newsreels.)
The Republicans were ready to reclaim the White House. They had three main candidates: New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who had lost to Roosevelt in 1944; Harold Stassen, former Governor of Minnesota and current President of the University of Pennsylvania; and Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. Taft controlled the conservative wing of the party with Dewey and Stassen fighting for supremacy among the moderate and liberal wings. During the primary season (which was much briefer in 1948 than it is today), Stassen was running ahead of Dewey in most contests. Dewey chose the Oregon primary to show his primacy over Stassen. He campaigned all over the state. The big issue was Stassen’s idea of abolishing the Communist Party in the United States. Dewey strongly opposed it because, while he abhorred Communism (we will find out that not all candidates for office in 1948 did), he believed it was unconstitutional for the country to prohibit any form of political thought. Dewey’s viewpoint prevailed and he won a clear victory in Oregon. With the momentum from that election, Dewey was able to overcome Taft’s opposition (he picked up delegates mostly through state party caucuses and conventions) in the convention in Philadelphia to win the nomination on the first ballot. California governor Earl Warren was chosen for the second slot.
Truman had more problems. His Commerce Secretary, Henry Wallace, gave a speech in New York in 1946 where he strongly opposed Truman’s policy of strongly confronting Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe. Wallace thought that the Soviet Union and the U.S. should just be friends and agree never to fight and everything would be fine. Truman fired Wallace. Wallace, in turn, went on to form his own party on the left, which he called the Progressives. He would run alongside Idaho Senator Glen Taylor. Yes, in 1948, there were far left candidates from Idaho.
Truman also had problems on his right. Truman had formed a commission to study civil rights, which immediately raised the ire of Southerners, who feared Federal involvement in sacred Southern matters, such as oppressing African-American voters and preventing lynching from becoming a crime. Several Southern states planned to bolt the party if a civil rights plank was added to the platform.
Some Democrats thought that Dwight Eisenhower, then the President of Columbia, would make a great candidate and there was a plan to draft him. But, Eisenhower declined. Besides, nobody knew if he was a Republican or Democrat.
In the end, Truman was nominated. 35 Southern delegates bolted the convention in protest of a civil rights plank. They went on to form the States Rights Party, although they were more popularly known as the Dixiecrats. They ended up nominating Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for President and Fielding Wright of Mississippi for Vice President. Truman needed a running mate and settled on Kentucky senator Alben Barkley, who had delivered a rousing speech to the convention.
When it came time to campaign, the polls showed Dewey with a strong lead. However, the Democrats back in 1947 had set up a strategy where they thought Truman could win. They would work hard to shore up labor’s support and then hammer Dewey and the Republicans on populist issues. They figured that the election would be close, but the Democrats were in a much stronger position in the electoral vote, even with some defections in the South.
Dewey’s campaign was rather restrained. He and his campaign team believed that they had a safe lead and wanted to act statesmanlike. Dewey gave bland speeches that avoided promises. Dewey did not attack Truman much, certainly not with the same vigor he used going after Roosevelt in 1944.
Truman went on the attack as soon as he gave his acceptance speech. During that speech, Truman said he would call the 80th Congress, whom he dubbed “The Do Nothing Congress”, into special session to pass a package of bills that would include minimum wage laws, Federal health insurance, and housing. (Nothing of consequence passed during the session.)
1948 was the last Presidential election before television coverage became widespread (although TV did exist). This worked to Truman’s advantage as he could travel the country in his special train and give speeches tailored to whatever crowd he encountered. Some speeches were good, some were not, but there was not constant scrutiny on everything he said. Truman relentlessly hammered home a populist message, proclaiming the Democrats as the party of the working man (and woman) who would stand up for them against the nefarious forces of Wall Street.
Wallace’s campaign never went anywhere. Few American voters were interested in a campaign that was based on defusing world tensions by just agreeing to be nice. Wallace took his campaign to the South and was pelted with eggs at many stops. He seemed to enjoy the role of martyr, according to Karabell.
Thurmond and the Dixiecrats hoped to win enough states to throw the election into the House, but could not make any gains past four core states: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. In those states, Thurmond appeared on the ballot as the official Democratic party nominee instead of Truman. Those would be the only states Thurmond would win with his underfunded campaign.
One warning sign that the Republicans missed out on was polling data showing that Congressional races throughout the country were trending Democratic. However, Dewey and his advisors were unconcerned. A few Republican donors advised Dewey to go on the attack in the closing weeks, but that did not happen.
Election Day was November 2. Dewey went to bed before the outcome was settled. Truman stayed up a little longer. When the results came in, Truman had won. And by a healthy margin (49% to 45% with Thurmond and Wallace splitting up the rest) at the polls. The electoral vote had an ever bigger disparity: 303 for Truman, 189 for Dewey, and 39 for Thurmond. While Dewey had reclaimed New York for the Republicans, Truman cleaned up in the Midwest and Plains. One important issue in the campaign that the Republicans had not realized would come back to bite them was the elimination of Federal financial support for grain storage. Since nearly every farmer grew more wheat and corn than could be sold at the time of harvest, much of it needed to be stored in grain elevators. But storage cost money. With no money for them, farmers faced huge financial losses. Truman used this issue to show how Republicans had no interest in protecting the middle and lower class.
Karabell asserts that in the long run, candidates like Dewey would be the likely winners of presidential campaigns. It was much easier in the television era to just look like a good candidate and not say too much to anger either side. A campaign like Truman’s, which was extremely nasty, is off-putting to voters of today. (Although that may not be as true as much now as the Democrats and Republicans are starting to polarize more.) 1948 was supposed to be the first election when truly scientific polling was supposed to tell people who was going to win. And while the polls of 1948 were far better than the one in 1936 that predicted an Alf Landon win over Roosevelt, they were still new. They were not perfect. They are not perfect today, but they are still better. Don’t expect, I wouldn’t expect another upset like 1948 to happen again. Then again, in 1995, I told someone that no one would ever be elected President without winning the popular vote.