Sunday, November 3, 2013

Today in 1948:

President Harry S. Truman looked defeated in 1948. Thomas Dewey, the liberal Republican governor of New York and former prosecutor, was beloved in New York and had easily beaten back attempts by conservatives to take over the Republican Party. Dewy's running mate was the relatively conservative Governor of California, the popular Earl Warren.

The Democratic Party, however, was in disarray. Truman had been challenged in the primaries by Senator Richard Russell of Georgia and Senator Claude Pepper of Florida, who both represented the Southern conservative bloc of the party. (The Deep South, at the time, was solidly Democratic and solidly racist.) Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina had actually bolted the party and formed a "Dixiecrat" party -- and was threatening to draw off millions of votes. Liberals in the Democratic Party were so upset with Truman, too, that they were pushing Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas for president. Another liberal, former Vice President Henry Wallace, had also left and formed a new Progressive Party. Wallace was immensely popular among farmers, ranchers, and liberals, and he also threatened to draw off millions of votes. But the "Dump Truman" movement could not unite behind a candidate, and most of the challengers withdrew during the national convention in Philadelphia (held July 10-14).

Truman was sinking in the polls. Dewey appeared unbeatable. Dewey's top advisors told the candidate to play it safe, and avoid mistakes. Dewey agreed, and his speeches were crafted to be as bland as possible. He stated the obvious, he avoided any mention of controversial issues, he remained vague about his plans, and he was resolutely optimistic.

Truman's advisor told him to "be presidential", to stay above the partisan fray and use the prestige of the White House to win. Truman ignored their advice.

Instead, Truman a no-holds-barred, slash-and-burn campaign that ran mostly on the ground (not through advertising). He ridiculed Dewey by name, and pointed out in scathing terms just how little leadership Dewey was offering. Since the Republicans had held both houses of Congress since 1946, Truman blasted the GOP as the "do-nothing" Congress. Dewey was running on a platform that expanded Social Security and public housing and promoted civil rights. Truman knew that Congress was far to the right of Dewey, and did not want to enact any of this.

At this time, Congress generally was not in session from June to November. So Truman craftily called a special session of Congress in late July and dared the Republicans pass Dewey's party platform. Congress refused, playing right into Truman's hands -- proving to the country that Dewey would be an ineffective president, and proving Truman's claims that Congress was full of a bunch of "do-nothings".

All the polls showed Truman losing heavily. Gallup conducted nine polls in July and August, and Truman lost them all by wide margins. Roper suspended polling at the end of September, Dewey's lead was so large.

But private Dewey campaign polls showed Dewey's lead dropping swiftly. Up 17 points in August, he'd dropped to 9 points in September and just 5 points in October, and the drop was continuing every day. In the final two weeks of the campaign, the Dewey and Truman campaigns both ran newsreel advertisements in theaters. Dewey's was a slick professional job that was bland and obvious. Truman's campaign, almost out of funds, had to settle for public-domain newsreel footage -- which, amazingly, showed Truman doing presidential things, leadership things, world-changing things. Truman's polling numbers began shooting upward as the public saw side-by-side advertisements that showed Dewey in the worst possible light and Truman as presidential timber.

Truman leapt to an early lead in the vote-counts, but the news media overwhelmingly predicted a Dewey win. Truman had a light meal, a bath, and went to bed early. But in Dewey's headquarters, there was real concern. Dewey's vote-totals in New England and New York State were running far behind predictions, and poll watchers in the must-win states of Ohio and Illinois were shocked at the low turnout for Dewey. (In fact, Dewey only barely carried New York and Pennsylvania, where he should have won by 10 points or more.) In the South, the Dixiecrats were winning Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina -- but Truman was holding everything else in the South (including Tennessee, which he was widely thought to have lost). By 4 AM, Dewey had lost Idaho and Nevada, and it was clear that he'd lose the all-important state of California as well. Henry Wallace's progressive campaign was doing very poorly through the country, and winning less than 2.5 percent of the vote in the Midwest -- where Truman won Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Indeed, Dewey barely held on to his home state of Michigan by 35,000 votes.

When Truman awoke at dawn, his national vote total was 2 million higher than Dewey's, and he'd slammed Dewey in the Electoral College, 303 to 189.

The voting in some states was so close, however, that results were not known until late in the morning of November 4. Dewey finally conceded at about 10:30 AM.

What everyone had missed was the 14 percent of Dewey's supporters switched to Truman in the final days before the election.

The media also predicted that the GOP would continue to hold both houses of Congress. Instead, the Democrats won the House and Senate as well.

The Chicago Tribune printed its erroneous headline for several reasons. Its printers were out on strike, forcing the paper to use an older method of printing that required the front page to be composed hours earlier than usual. The paper's lead political correspondent refused to believe the worsening vote-total for Dewey, so the newspaper continued to show a Dewey win even after it was apparent he was in deep trouble. Only after about 150,000 copies of the now-infamous headline were printed did the Tribune yank the front page. It removed all references to a Dewey win, and remade the headline to show the election too close to call. It also began emphasizing the statewide sweep by Democrats.

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