Election Surprises – Truman’s 1948 Victory


Probably the biggest surprise in the history of presidential elections, Harry Truman defied the odds in winning re-election in 1948. When the campaign started, no one except Truman himself expected he would win. In the 1946 elections, the Republicans had captured both houses of Congress. Some leading Republicans even suggested that Truman should appoint his probable opponent, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, as Secretary of State and then resign, allowing the American people to have their clear and obvious choice that much sooner.

Truman did not compare well to the popular Franklin Roosevelt. He did not appear as confident or commanding. Sayings such as, “To err is Truman” and “I wonder what Truman would do if he were alive” were heard everywhere. War-time price controls had been lifted, mainly through the efforts of the Republican Congress, and the cost of living had increased 30% between 1946 and the 1948 conventions.

The Democratic Convention met in Philadelphia on July 12, 1948. Many delegates held placards saying, “I’m just mild about Harry” in a take-off on the popular song title. Many unhappy delegates felt much like the Republican delegates had in 1932. They did not see any real chance of winning with Truman, but they felt they had no other choice. For Vice President the convention nominated Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley. Barkely’s keynote speech had raised some enthusiasm, and Truman’s rousing acceptance speech brought the cheerless delegates to their feet. “Senator Barkley and I will win this election, and make these Republicans like it,” said Truman as he got a standing ovation.

The convention was memorable for two exciting events. The first was when young Mayor (and Senate candidate) Hubert Humphrey called on the Democratic Party to move “out of the shadow of states’ rights and into the sunlight of human rights.” Truman had been an advocate of civil rights, even going so far as to order the U.S. armed forces desegregated. This cost him the support of the segregationist south. When the Humphrey plank was adopted, most of the southern delegates walked out of the convention. These right-wing southern Democrats formed the Dixiecrat Party and nominated Governor Strom Thurmond (later to become a Republican and President Pro Tem of the Senate) for President.

The left wing of the party had already bolted. They were rallying around the candidacy of Henry Wallace, former cabinet member and Vice President who had been replaced on the ticket by Harry Truman in 1944. They called themselves the Progressive Party.

The Republican Convention nominated Thomas E. Dewey, their 1944 candidate, amid an atmosphere of euphoria. He had been predicted as the next President since 1946 or earlier. Pollster Elmo Roper announced in September that Dewey was leading Truman by 41% to 31%, and that “no amount of electioneering could alter the result.” Other leading pollsters like George Gallup and Archibald Crossley also forecast a substantial Dewey victory. The New York Times announced that “Thomas E. Dewey’s election as President is a foregone conclusion.” The Kiplinger Newsletter declared that “Dewey will be in for eight years – until ’57.” Just before the election, the cover of Life Magazine carried a large picture of Dewey with the caption, “The next President of the United States.” The cover of Time Magazine, a new weekly, carried a picture of Dewey with the caption “WHAT DEWEY WILL DO.”

The second thing the convention was memorable for was Truman’s announcement that he was going to call the Republican Congress back into session. He said, “On the twenty-sixth day of July, which out in Missouri they call Turnip Day, I’m going to call that Congress back and I’m going to ask them to pass laws halting rising prices and to meet the housing crisis which they say they’re for in their platform. At the same time, I shall ask them to act on other vitally needed measures such as aid to education, which they say they’re for; a national health program, , civil rights legislation, which they say they’re for; funds for projects needed…to provide public power and cheap electricity….” Truman said the job could be done in fifteen days if it wanted to. “What that worse Eightieth Congress does in its special session will be the test. The American people will decide on the record.”

Of course, the 80th Congress accomplished nothing in the special session. Truman ran more against the 80th “Do Nothing” Congress than he did against Dewey. He made a strenuous campaign that covered almost 22,000 miles and almost 300 speeches. He called the 80th Congress “the worst in history” which had “stuck a pitchfork in the farmer’s back.”

Truman embarked on a “whistle stop” campaign, the last time the train played a major role in presidential campaigning. Everywhere his train stopped, he drew large crowds. He was a poor speech reader, and did much better when he spoke off the cuff, appearing friendly and warm. At the end of each speech, he would introduce his wife (The Boss) and his daughter (The Boss’ Boss). Despite the warm response to his “give-em-hell” speeches, polls still showed Truman far behind Dewey.

Dewey seemed to ignore Truman. He campaigned more like a president trying to stay abovt politics. He seemed to most people very stiff and stuffy. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, said that Dewey looked like the little groom on the top of wedding cakes.

But some people saw the signs correctly, even if they didn’t believe what they saw. In Kansas City, a feed supply company conducted their own informal poll by putting donkeys and elephants on the feed sacks, giving farmers the chance to register the preferences by which sacks they purchased. By early September, 20,000 farmers had been polled this way and 54% of them had voted Democratic. The company abandoned the survey saying, “We read the Gallup and Roper polls that were all for Dewey and we decided that our results were too improbable.” A similar “popcorn poll” at movie theaters netted the same improbable results.

Just before the election, Gallup gave the election to Dewey by 49.5% to 44.5%. Crossley said almost exactly the same. Roper gave Dewey 52.2% to 37.1% for Truman. When the election was over, Truman had beaten Dewey by more than two million votes and carried 28 states (303 electoral votes) to Dewey’s 16 (189 electoral votes). On the way back to Washington, Truman stopped in St. Louis and held up a copy of the Chicago Tribune (published too early) announcing in a big headline, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” He had a great deal of fun imitating national commentator H.V. Kaltenborn’s staccato-pitched voice predicting his defeat in election night broadcasts.

One man, on election night, told a reporter that political experts were like weathermen. He said, “The weathermen predicted rain tonight, and the political experts picked Dewey. There’s no rain, and it might not even be dewey.”

The Washington Post hung a large banner across it’s building in Washington reading, “Mr. President, we are ready to eat crow whenever you are ready to serve it.” The Post also invited him to a dinner for “political reporters and editors, including our own, along with pollsters, radio commentators and columnists…the main course will consist of tough old crow en glace. (You will eat turkey.)” The Democratic National Committee offered to furnish the toothpicks since it would take months to get the crow out of the diners’ teeth.

One pollster did some crowing of his own. Wilfred J. Funk, editor of the defunct Literary Digest, which had folded after its ridiculous prediction of a Landon victory in 1936 said, “I do not want to seem malicious, but I can’t help but get a good chuckle out of this.”

Today, historians can examine the election with the benefit of hindsight not available to those in 1948. The other parties helped Truman more than they hurt him. The Progressive Party removed the taint of communism from the Democratic Party; the Dixiecrat revolt convinced northern blacks, not sure about Truman, to give him their overwhelming support.

Truman did many great things. He desegregated the armed forces, reorganized western military alliances, dropped the atomic bomb to end the war sooner, and created the American policy of “containment” of communism, to name a few. But his most amazing accomplishment was his re-election in 1948, and the campaign he waged to win a term as President in his own right.

The copyright of the article ELECTION SURPRISES – TRUMAN’S 1948 VICTORY is owned by John S. Cooper. Permission to republish ELECTION SURPRISES – TRUMAN’S 1948 VICTORY in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.