OTD in History… November 3, 1948, Truman retains the presidency in an election upset against Dewey
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history, November 3, 1948, Democratic nominee President Harry Truman wins the presidential election in an upset over Republican nominee New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who the press was certain would win. With Truman’s approval numbers down, his reelection seemed uncertain and throughout the general election, campaign pollsters were certain than Dewey with a comfortable lead would defeat Truman. Dewey’s victory was so certain that the Chicago Daily Tribune prematurely published their next day newspaper with the emboldened front-page headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” However, in the early morning hours of November 3, Truman led Dewey in the vote count, by the morning he was the official winner beating Dewey by 114 Electoral College votes. The photo of Truman holding up the Tribune’s mistaken headline has become an iconic image of the underdog president defying the odds. Historians consider Truman’s victory the biggest election upset in American history.
After President Franklin Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, at the verge of the end of World War II, Vice President Harry Truman assumed the presidency, which concerned many including White House correspondent Cabell Phillips of the New York Times who expressed, “‘Good God, Truman will be President!’” In the 1946 midterm elections, the Republicans won control of both houses of the United States Congress and a majority of state governorships. (Senate 51–45 and House 246–188). Republicans took advantage of Americans growing dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party’s long reign in power, with the campaign slogan “Had Enough?” and removing “the four C’s: controls, confusion, corruption, and Communism.” (Donaldson, 8)
As the country entered the election year in 1948, the economy and domestic affairs were major issues with high taxes, rising cost of living, labor strife, corruption in Washington. Meanwhile in foreign affairs, the onset of the Cold War with Communism vs. Capitalism in East Europe and in China, Truman dealt with Communism with a Doctrine of Containment, while the Marshall Plan that helped the European economic recovery was unpopular with the American public. In May 1948, Harry Truman had a 36 percent approval rating according to the Gallup poll, because the American voters saw him as soft on Communism.
Public opinion polls showed Republicans prime for recapturing the White House in 1948. The New York editorials indicated the president would not have the support of the press, “if Truman is nominated, he will be forced to wage the loneliest campaign in recent history.” To drum up support in June 1948, Truman took a “non-political” tour across the country; instead of using prepared texts, he spoke off the cuff appearing friendlier and attracted cheering crowds of supporters. Truman adopted what would become the theme of his campaign, Truman attacked the Republican Congress calling them “the worst in my memory” whose interest lied in “the welfare of the better classes” than the ordinary people. Truman completed the tour confident he could win the election.
After Truman clinched the nomination, Democrats who were discontent with him split into three factions; two formed or supported third parties and their candidates. Old New Deal policies advocates created the new Progressive Party and nominated Henry Wallace. The Southerners who disagreed with Truman’s civil rights policies created the States Rights Party and nominated Strom Thurmond of South Carolina Regular Democrats supported President Truman, with Southern delegates opposing his nomination.
The Democratic National Convention was held July 12–14, 1948, in Philadelphia. Civil Rights became the main source of contention and debate at the convention. The young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey prominence and pushed through strong civil rights plank. Thirteen Alabama delegates and the entire Mississippi delegation withdrew from the convention in opposition to the civil rights platform. Truman was nominated on the first ballot. Georgia Senator Richard B. Russell received more than 90 percent of the votes from remaining Southern delegates. Truman chose Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley Kentucky as his running mate and delegates nominated him by acclamation.
The Republicans held their convention on June 21–25, 1948, where they again nominated New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey on the third ballot; Dewey lost in 1944 against Roosevelt who won a fourth term. Republicans were certain they would beat Truman in the election. Dewey chose California Governor Earl Warren as his running mate. Dewey gave a dignified acceptance speech attempting to stand above politics.
Truman took an active approach in a campaign filled with mudslinging at the Republicans. Truman made the theme of his campaign running against the 80th Congress rather than his opponent Dewey, which he named the “Do-Nothing Republican Congress.” Truman undertook an extensive nationwide “whistle-stop” tour, 21,928 miles by rail and 275 speeches, which began on Labor Day and ended on Election Day. Truman delivered speeches to large crowds at “whistle stops” and big cities. Truman made campaign appearances on the rear platform of the train, where he introduced his family after short speeches. Truman would say, “Howja like to meet my family?” introducing his wife Bess as “the boss” and daughter Margaret as “the boss’s boss.”
In contrast, Dewey promised a safe dignified campaign suitable for a President-to-be. The Republican nominee ignored Truman and avoided specifics in his speeches, Dewey wanted the public to view him as a “high-minded, public-spirited, conscientious, and efficient administrator,” who could unify the country and create an effective foreign policy, it backfired, the public and press found him stuffy. (Boller, 271) In October, Dewey wanted to engage in a more active campaign, mudslinging but was advised against it. Dewey accused Truman of mudslinging, of there being Communists in the government, and claiming under Truman’s watch millions of people around the world “had been delivered into Soviet slavery after World War II.” Dewey usually refrained from foreign policy attacks, which was a mutually agreed upon as “bi-partisanship.” Towards the end, Dewey made foreign policy his main issue, accusing that under Truman “our allies in war” were being treated “as enemies in peace.” Recent events said otherwise, the Soviet Union was the aggressors with the February 1948 Czechoslovakia coup, and in July 1948 the West Berlin blockade. Truman sent an airlift to Berlin, which supplied 2,400,000 West Berliners with food and provisions, Americans approved of Truman’s decisiveness and actions.
Maximizing on his campaign attacks, Truman called a special session of Congress as a dare to Republican Party to enact or pass any legislation from their party platform. Congress met on July 25, for two weeks. Truman wanted eight social-welfare legislations passed part of his Fair Deal, which Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft called an “omnibus left-wing program.” Congress argued and debate for two weeks, then adjourned without passing anything, as Truman expected. Dewey wanted Senator Taft to pass any legislation to prove Truman wrong, but Taft thought Truman was a bluffing “cheap politico,” and refused.
The polls all predicted Dewey led Truman in the weeks and days leading up to the election. At Labor Day, Dewey led Truman by the double-digits. Pollsters George Gallup and Archibald Crossley and fifty political writers predicted a Dewey victory by a large margin. In the September Elmo Roper poll, Dewey led Truman, 41 to 31 percent, predicting “no amount of electioneering” would change the result by the election. Even the St. Louis betting commissioner named Dewey the fifteen-to-one favorite.
The final polls the day before Election Day on November 1, 1948, had Dewey victorious. The Gallup poll had Dewey at 49.5 percent and Truman at 44.5 percent. The Crossley poll had 49.9 percent for Dewey and 44.8 percent for Truman. While Elmo Roper had Dewey defeating Truman by a whopping 15 percent, 52.2 percent to 37.1 percent with Roper proclaiming, “I stand by my prediction. Dewey is in.” On November 1, the New York Times was already eulogizing Truman’s lost with the headline, “VOTE IN THE SOUTH MAY COST TRUMAN SEVERAL STATES; Civil-Rights Revolt May Carry 4 Southern States as Dewey Gets Chance in 3 Others.”
On November 2, 1948, Election Day, the voting numbers show Truman in the lead. By the early morning hours, Truman is elected President and Alben W. Barkley is elected Vice President. Truman’s campaign push against the Republican Congress helps the Democratic Party regains control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The 1948 campaign was one of many firsts, the first televised party conventions and the first time a sitting president conducted a successful rigorous campaign. Gary Donaldson in his book Truman Defeats Dewey notes Truman “the man who pulled off the greatest of election upsets against all the odds and against the predictions of all the pundits and pollsters…. The election of 1948 was a spectacular upset and a great victory for Truman and the Democrats. It was also, in many ways, the beginning of a new, modern political era in American history.”
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Donaldson, Gary A. Truman Defeats Dewey. Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
Karabell, Zachary. The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election. New York: Knopf, 2000.
Troy, Gil, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel. History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008. New York: Facts On File, 2012.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.