|Cartoonist Clifford K. Berryman captured the conventional wisdom on the eve of the 1948 Presidential Election.|
Most historians consider November 2, 1948 to be the greatest upset in American political history. New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey was the anointed front runner in the race for President. Harry S. Truman, the apparently doomed incumbent, pulled off a stunning upset and in the process helped lead the Democratic Party to regain control of both houses of Congress.
Despite having led the nation in the final months of World War II, Truman was deeply unpopular in mid 1948. The nation was just coming out of a deep post-war recession marked by a drop in the Gross National Product (GNP) of 12% and inflation of over 15%. Instead of emerging into the new, peaceful world many had hoped, tensions with former ally the Soviet Union were running high. Liberals tended to oppose Truman’s aggressive posture against Soviet expansion as provocative, while conservatives derided him as “soft on Communism.” The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe was deeply unpopular, particularly in the Mid-West where old style isolationism was in full re-bloom.
But perhaps most important of all, Truman simply was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the hero figure who had led the nation out of the Depression and through the darkest days of the war to the edge of victory. By contrast to FDR, Truman seemed small, an insignificant local politician created by the corrupt Kansas City Prendergast Machine who was simply in office as an accident of history. He was plain spoken where Roosevelt was eloquent, prone to crankiness, and not supported by much of his own Party, including, perhaps most significantly FDR’s widow Eleanor.
Party discontent with the President swelled when Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress in 1946. Restive party leaders were actively looking for an alternative, focusing on the greatest hero of the war, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Truman himself, discouraged by his prospects and fearful that the Republicans would turn to General Douglas MacArthur, whose man-on-a-white-horse tendencies he deeply mistrusted, privately offered to run as Eisenhower’s vice president if the general would accept the nomination.
Republicans had the same idea and courted Ike themselves. But the General, then serving as President of Columbia University and at work on his memoirs, was loath to enter politics and spurned both efforts without identifying whether he was personally a Republican or a Democrat.
The obvious choice for the Republicans was Dewey who had lost to Roosevelt in 1944, but gone on to win re-election as New York governor by the widest margin in history. He was an old fashion liberal Republican and had the solid support of the party’s powerful eastern establishment. But Dewey had his own problem with those who saw in him a stiff campaigner, a proven national loser, and among the growing conservative base of the Mid-Western party.
The darling of the conservatives was Ohio Senator Robert Taft, son of former President and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who had conveniently jettisoned his father’s moderate Republicanism and semi-heretical Unitarianism. Taft supporters decided to derail Dewey’s apparent steamroller ride to the nomination by contesting him in a series of primary elections. Primaries, a product of the Progressive Era of political reform had never yet played a significant roll in selecting the nominee of any party. That was about to change.
Former Minnesota Governor Harold E. Stassen was a surprise entry into many primaries. Once the Boy Wonder, he had been elected governor at the age of 31 as an old fashioned progressive Republican. He resigned as governor and enlisted as an officer in the Navy during the war and afterwards served as a delegate to the founding conference of the United Nations.
California Governor Earl Warren and Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg chose to run as favorite sons in hopes that a convention deadlocked between Dewey, Taft, and Stassen would turn to them. MacArthur, still on active duty in Japan, had signaled his willingness to run and was backed by many conservatives who likewise counted on a brokered convention.
Out of the gate, Dewey was stunned when Stassen won the primary in progressive friendly Wisconsin. MacArthur’s supporters had also placed his name on the ballot in that state, and his loss scuttled any chance of building momentum for the General. Stassen followed up with another victory in Nebraska. But he stumbled badly when he tried to take out Taft in his home state of Ohio.
Next up was Oregon, a liberal Republican bastion in the far west where Taft could not compete. Dewey, in a panic flooded the state with money, advertising, and his national campaign staff. The Stassen and Dewey met up in the first ever radio debate for Presidential candidates, broadcast over a national hoop-up. The debate covered a single issue: should the Communist Party be outlawed? Stassen, considered the more liberal of the two, argued in the affirmative, perhaps attempting to attract Taft supporters in a united “Stop Dewey” effort. Dewey, a distinguished attorney, opposed the idea arguing, “You can’t shoot an idea.” Radio listeners were impressed with Dewey’s presence, even if they disagreed with his position. Dewey won Oregon and sailed into the GOP Convention in Philadelphia once again as the favorite.
The Philadelphia conclave was the first national political convention covered on infant television. The drama proved so engrossing that conventions for years became a staple of riveting entertainment as well as substantive news—a situation that continued into the 1990’s by which time the expanded primary system meant that a party’s nomination was sewn up long before the gavel dropped a convention.
With Dewey’s big edge in convention delegates, backers of Stassen, Taft, Warren, and Vandenberg met in a hotel room hoping to come up with a coordinated “stop Dewey” movement. But no candidate would withdraw and throw their support behind another. The only strategy to emerge from the meeting was for each candidate to try to hold their delegates through successive balloting, denying Dewey a majority until his discouraged backers would begin to look for an alternative. Dewey, however, had a masterful floor campaign and one by one picked up support from uncommitted delegates, supporters of other favorite sons, and even from a handful of delegates pledged to real contenders. On the second ballot Dewey was only 33 votes shy of victory. Taft personally appealed to Stassen to withdraw in his favor. Stassen declined. Instead, Taft reluctantly released his delegates to Dewey, who was then nominated by acclimation. The party then adopted Dewey’s proposed platform, a remarkably liberal document that called for expanding Social Security, more funding for public housing, civil rights legislation, and promotion of health and education by the federal government. Taft conservatives were outraged, but knowing that Congressional Republicans would never advance such legislation, kept their mouths shut.
Despite these machinations, the Republicans emerged from their convention relatively united and with their candidate already far ahead in early poll match-ups with the President.
The Democrats, predictably, were in chaos. Liberals, alarmed by the rapidly rising tensions with the Soviet Union and the tendency of the Administration to put extension of New Deal reforms on the back burner, had bolted the party and inaugurated a new Progressive Party, not to be confused with the parties of the same name backed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and Robert Lafollette in 1924. The new party nominated Henry Wallace, former Secretary of Agriculture, one term Vice President under FDR (replaced on the ticket by Truman in 1944), and Commerce Secretary.
Wallace had the support not only of many liberals, but also of the Communist Party, which declined to run a candidate that year. Communists were active in the campaign and held important positions in some states. Leading anti-communist liberals in the press like H. R. Menken and Dorothy Thompson denounced him. Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas abandoned plans to support a unity ticket under the Progressives, and fielded his own campaign as the Socialist candidate. In the end, most liberals stuck with Truman and Wallace garnered only 2.5% of the popular vote and no Electoral College votes.
The dump Truman movement spearheaded by Chicago boss Jacob Arvey, New Jersey boss Frank Hague, FDR’s eldest son James Roosevelt (presumably with encouragement from his mother), and Senator Claude Pepper of Florida, fell apart when Eisenhower adamantly refused their advances. Without an alternative to the sitting President, the dissidents glumly went along and Truman sailed to easy, if unenthusiastic, nomination. Northern liberals, eager to win the support of the growing Black populations of the big industrial centers—the only working class population to continue to regularly vote Republican out of traditional gratitude to the Party that ended slavery—and to woo potential Wallace backers back into the fold, took control of the Platform process. Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey successfully advanced a new, strong Civil Rights plank to the platform that called for the end of Jim Crow laws in the South. Adoption of the platform led to a walk out of about three dozen delegates led by South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond.
Weeks later Southern Democrats convened their own convention in Birmingham, Alabama and created the States Rights Democratic Party, commonly known as the Dixiecrats. Despite not even getting the unanimous support of Southern parties and knowing that they could not even get onto the ballot in most states, they nominated Thurmond as their candidate. They hoped to cause the Electoral College to produce no clear winner and throw the race into the House of Representatives where they could broker their support to both parties for pledges to leave Jim Crow laws alone. The Party was able to get on the ballot as the major Democratic Party in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. Elsewhere it was listed as a minor third Party. In Alabama Dixiecrats succeeded in keeping Truman’s name entirely off of the ballot.
With Truman’s party apparently fractured and with a wide lead in the polls, Republican strategists decided that Dewey should mount a safe campaign advancing no specific proposals and speaking only in the broadest of generalities. This, it was believed would let voters pour their own expectations into the empty vessel of Dewey and paper over any discontent by conservatives. Dewey’s stump speeches, stiffly given, were marvels of the glittering generality. He kept saying things like “You know that your future is still ahead of you.” Apparently it was working. By mid September Dewey had opened a large double digit lead over Truman and national organizations simply gave up on wasting money on additional polling.
|"Give 'em hell Harry" on his whistle stop campaign.|
Meanwhile, with nothing to lose, Truman embarked on a vigorous, take-no-prisoner campaign. Never had a sitting president gone out on the huskings like this. He crossed the nation on a special campaign train giving rousing stump speeches from the back of his special car to larger and larger audiences. In the most famous whistle stop campaign of all time, Truman called out Dewey by name and excoriated the Republicans as the party of Wall Street and big business whose return to power could trigger another Great Depression. He ran as much against the “Do nothing Republic Congress,” as he did against Dewey, which also buoyed the hopes of Democratic Congressional candidates and built enthusiasm for the party from top to bottom.
One masterful stroke to take advantage of the gap between Dewey’s liberal party platform and the conservative GOP majority in Congress was to call Congress back in session solely to consider Dewey’s liberal proposals. The Republican majority declined to advance Dewey’s program and was publicly humiliated. A wedge was driven between Dewey and conservatives and voters were confirmed in Truman’s characterization of Congress. Enthusiastic crowds along the way began to cheer the President on with call to “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” To which Truman replied, “I just give them the truth, they think it’s Hell.”
Some historians think a turning point may have been two short films prepared by the campaigns that were shown together at movie houses across the country in the waning days of the election. Dewey’s film, reflecting his sophisticated and well funded campaign, was polished and professionally produced, yet the candidate came off as stiff and distant. Truman’s cash strapped campaign slapped together a montage of newsreel footage of Truman taking part in major world events and signing important legislation. He suddenly looked presidential. And footage of enthusiastic whistle stop appearances showed him to be anything but distant and aloof.
Pundits isolated in New York, where Dewey remained popular, or in Washington saw little of this and understood less. They continued to write about the inevitability of Dewey’s election right up the end. LIFE magazine even published a photo of Dewey in its last issue before Election Day captioned, “Our Next President Rides by Ferryboat over San Francisco Bay.” Several pundits pre-filed stories to be printed on Wednesday with speculation on Dewey’s cabinet appointees. Even members of the press who had traveled with Truman, although impressed by his energy, did not believe he had a chance to be re-elected.
Truman, however, cheerfully returned to Independence, Missouri to vote and await the results. Dewey confidently waited in a New York hotel with a massive victory party scheduled in the ball room. Early returns indicated a Truman lead. Radio commentators, most famously H. V. Kaltenborn of NBC, confidently predicted that once the late returns came in Dewey would win. They were wrong. Truman never relinquished the lead in the popular vote the entire evening.
Dewey first became alarmed early in the evening when returns from the usually reliable Republican stronghold of New England gave him a much narrower lead than he had expected. Results also showed that Wallace was having a negligible affect and the Dixiecrat damage to Truman in the South would be far more limited than believed.
Still, the Chicago Tribune remained confident of Dewey’s eventual victory, based largely on their belief that Dewey would carry Illinois that it went ahead with its famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in the early November 3 editions. At 4 AM that morning Truman got up from a sound sleep and found that he still had a lead of 2 million popular votes. He decided to get dressed and head to Kansas City to prepare to meet the press. Dewey had stayed up all night nervously following developments. When late results from California finally dashed his hopes, he phoned Truman to concede at 10:30 in the morning.
|The iconic photo that says it all.|
Gleeful Truman was not above gloating. In a famous photo he displayed the Chicago Tribune headline and for the rest of his life enjoyed imitating H.V. Kaltenborn’s deluded predictions.
In the end, it was not even close. Truman won 24,179,347 popular votes against 21,991,292 for Dewey, 1,175,930 for Thurmond, and 1,157,328 for Wallace. The Electoral College vote was even more lopsided—303 for Truman, 189 for Dewey, 39 for Thurmond, and 0 for Wallace. Dewey took New England except for Massachusetts and Rhode Island; the Mid-Atlantic states of New York, Jew Jersey, and Delaware, Indiana and Michigan in the Mid-West; the High Plains states from Kansas to North Dakota, and only lonely Oregon in the west.