Hello and welcome to another edition of the presidential election series I’ll be going over the election of 1948 as we have four different candidates running for the high office, a political party divided, a president whose chances to win are slim at best and an ending that some called the greatest upset in presidential election history… Did Dewey really defeat Truman like the media announced?
The VP turn Accidental POTUS
As we mentioned in the 1944 election article, FDR got re-elected for an unpresented fourth term with Harry S. Truman becoming the 34th Vice President, however Truman would only serve as VP for only 82 days as Franklin D. Roosevelt would die on April 12th, 1945 from a cerebral hemorrhage just months into his term.
Later that very same day, Truman entered the White House and was sworn in as the 33rd President in U.S. History with many wondering how this Missouri Senator who never wanted to be vice president could possibly be able to follow up the one of the all-time best presidents in American History.
To say that things were tough for Harry Truman once he became president would be a massive understatement as he had to finish the remainder of World War II as the Empire of Japan continued to fight despite their allies Germany and Italy surrendering years earlier. In order to bring the war to an end, Truman made the decision to use two atomic bombs on the Empire of Japan; While the decision to use nuclear weapons was controversial even today, Japan would officially surrender on September 2nd, 1945 after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki thereby bringing World War II to an end.
Following this, President Truman dealt with foreign affairs regarding the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin and attempts to reduce communist influence around the globe which would spark the beginnings of the Cold War, while at the same time Truman proposed plans to provide aid to Japan and European nations affected by the war.
Back in the U.S. Truman had to tackle problems regarding inflation, union strikes and shortages of food, gas, even housing, but things got even worse when the Republican Party reclaimed seats in Congress following the 1946 midterm election and they made it their mission to block all of Truman’s legislation which led to Truman suffering a approval rating of about 36% and made many feel that his chances for re-election were hopeless.
Give’em Hell Harry!!!
Due to Truman’s abysmal approval ratings, many within the Democratic Party tried to get someone else to run for the up-and-coming presidential election including famed World War II General, Dwight D. Eisenhower with Truman reportedly telling Eisenhower that if General Douglas MacArthur decided to run for the Republicans in 1948 and won the nomination, then he (Truman) would run as Eisenhower’s running mate for the Democrats, but Eisenhower would mention in January of 1948 that he wouldn’t run as a candidate for either the Democrats or the Republicans.
With Eisenhower’s refusal to run and many other Democrats gaining little support to challenge the incumbent, Harry Truman attended the Democratic National Convention after winning the party’s nomination and he chose Alben Barkley, the former U.S. Senator turned Senate Minority Leader from Kentucky as his running mate.
After winning the nomination, President Truman announced that he would be running on a platform supporting the ideas of desegregating the military and passing civil rights to African Americans which actually angered some within his party but more on that later.
Truman then gives a speech calling out the 80th Republican Congress as “The Do-Nothing Congress” as they refuse to pass the legislation his been calling for that would improve the country, only for the Republicans to run a candidate in this election who plans to run of the same ideas Truman has been looking to pass. Truman further calls out Congress to do something when he says the following: “My Duty as president, requires that I use every means within my power to get the laws that people need on matters of such importance and urgency, I am therefore calling this congress back into session on 26th of July!”
This move shocked many including the Republicans who refused to pass any of the legislation that they claimed to support when Congress came back into session on July 26th 1948 thereby proving Truman’s point about hyprocisy and ineffectiveness of the GOP to live up to their promises when they have the power.
The Rise of the Dixiecrats
While President Harry Truman was able to get his party’s nomination, that very same party was divided into three as the more liberal and conservative wings of the party broke away in protest against both the president and his platform for the election.
Remember how I mentioned that Truman’s campaign platform called for passing civil rights and ending segregation in the military, well as it turns out the southern wing of the Democratic Party who had been frustrated for several years over FDR’s New Deal policies decided that Truman’s call for civil rights was the last straw and a large number of southern Democrats left with many of them saying “Goodbye Harry” as they exited the convention.
The walk out of the Democratic Convention was orchestrated by South Carolina Governor, Strom Thurmond who would go on to deliver a fillibuster speech denouncing civil rights for 24 hours on the Senate floor in 1957 which is still the longest fillibuster ever given in U.S. history.
After walking out of the convention, many of these Southern Democrats would go on to form a new political party called The State’s Rights Democratic Party, in fact this party was even refered to as the Democratic Party on the ballot in several states with many of it’s members or fellow Southern Democrats who oppposed civil rights for African Americans being called ‘Dixiecrats’.
The State’s Rights Democratic Party nominated Strom Thrumond for president with the Governor os Missippi, Fielding Wright as his running mate.
The Dixiecrats ran on a platform that promised to maintain Jim Crow Laws within the South and their masterplan was to get enough electoral votes from Southern States in the hopes that it would prevent the two major candidates from getting enough votes, thereby leading to the results having to be sent to Congress and the Senate to be decided where the Dixiecrats would support the candidate who promised to keep segregation within the South.
Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party
As the Democratic Party is being torn apart from the right by Thurmond and the Dixiecrats, the party is also being torn apart from the left thanks to the efforts of former Vice President, Henry A. Wallace.
If you recall from the previous election article, Henry Wallace was kicked off the ticket in 1944 out of concern by many Democrats that Wallace would become the new president if FDR passed away as he supported ideas that frighten many establishment types in Washington, which lead to Harry Truman being his replacement on the ticket.
After Roosevelt’s death and Truman’s ascension to the oval office, Wallace became the president’s new Secretary of Commerce before eventually being fired by Truman over disputes both men had regarding Truman’s foreign policy and how the House Un-American Activities Committee violated many civil liberties.
On January 5th 1948, Wallace announced that he would run for president as an independent and many of his supporters left the Democrats to create a new progressive party that centered around Henry Wallace and they nominated him for president and chose Glenn Taylor who was a liberal Senator from Idaho as his running mate. Taylor was nicknamed “The Singing Cowboy” due to his habit of singing songs and riding his horse near the state capital, plus he was also seen as one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Senate and in Congress.
The Progressive Party had gained much attention due to the former vice president’s involvement but also thanks to the support of other political groups and celebrities like Ava Gardner and Katherine Hepburn. Wallace and Taylor ran on platform that called for peace negotiations with Russia, the nationalizing of many corporations, calling for civil and women’s rights to be passed, expanding the welfare to poor communities and improvements in health insurance among other policies.
The Return of Thomas Dewey
With the GOP back in control of Congress, many within the Republican Party were confident of victory in the 1948 election. A few familiar faces ran for the Party’s nomination like Thomas Dewey, Arthur Vandenburg, Robert Taft, Earl Warren, Douglas MacArthur and Harold Stassen.
Because he was the most ‘successful’ candidate to challenge FDR in a general election, Governor Thomas E. Dewey was the frontrunner early on however he did have strong challengers in Taft and Stassen, but Dewey’s campaign team led by Herbert Brownell Jr. were able to make deals with many delegates in order to get the support he needed to knock his opponents out of the running.
Following a remarkable performance against Harold Stassen in a radio debate regarding the Communist Party and a failed attempt to muster up support to challenge the New York Governor, Thomas Dewey once again became the Republican Party’s nominee for president.
Dewey and his team were struggling when came to picking a running mate until they decided to go with Earl Warren who was still the Governor of California and was originally Dewey’s first pick for running mate back in 1944.
With the governors of New York and California leading the GOP ticket in the presidential election, plus the division’s occurring within the Democratic Party gave many people the idea that Dewey would emerge victorious come election day, an idea that certainly was helped by the polling predictions that were being conducted.
Prediction Polling/Role of the Media
The idea of political analysts predicting the outcome of an election was nothing new prior to 1948, but this election is perhaps the most famous example of how prediction polling can really shape the narrative for much of the race as the majority of pollsters had Dewey defeating Truman with some estatimating around 5-15 points.
Even the Gallup Polls which accurately predicted that FDR who destroy Alf Landon in the 1936 election had conducted nine polls following both the Republican and Democratic conventions and all of them predicted that Dewey was going to defeat the incumbent president not to mention the split within the Democratic Party led many voters and politicians to believe that a new president was going to annointed by election day.
Newspapers, magazines and even radio personalities were so confident that Dewey was going to win that they not only mentioned it constantly in the media but in the case of the Chicago Tribune they even printed out thousands of newspapers with the headline ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ before the election was over.
So those are the candidates as well as the role of the media/ prediction polling, now it’s time to look at the campaigns.
All four candidates have different strategies when comes to this race with the Dixiecrats trying to get enough Southern States to deadlock the election as previously mentioned and the Progressive Party under Henry Wallace are making trips to the south to get their message of racial intergration across but is also hoping that the publicity he’ll be getting from these trips will fire up liberals in the North to go out and vote especially when the trips are met with angry Southerners who threw fruits and vegetables at them.
Wallace’s campaign would end up falling apart due to his platform being way too liberal for some in the U.S. plus his ideas of peace talks with Russia, communicating with a Russian spritial guru and the fact that there were Communists working within Wallace’s Progressive Party helped to label the former VP as a Communist-in- Hiding and an unlikely person to be in charge with the Cold War and the Red Scare taking place in the U.S.
The campaigns between Dewey and Truman see both men making trips around the U.S. via train cars but their strategies are vastily different. Dewey is playing it safe throughout, giving speeches that are filled with generic phrases like “You future is bright…It’s very bright indeed” or “You know that your future is still ahead of you”, he was also very vague on policy issues even though some of his policies like expanding social security, education and health care while also supporting civil rights legislation were more moderate compared to other conservatives within the party.
Because the polls are predicting a landslide defeat for the president, Harry Truman is giving speeches saying how the 80th Congress and the Republicans in general were in the pockets of big business and that they were to blame for the boom/bust cycles that ultimately gave way to the Great Depression, in hopes of winning over the American people and as the campaigning went on the crowd sizes for both Truman and Dewey changed drastically and this led to Dewey wanting to be more aggressive with his words when it came to campaigning but many higher ups within the GOP are telling him to stay the course and stick to the script as his lead was still way ahead of Truman’s according to the polls.
President Truman also has the benefit of having the economy beginning to turn around going into the election with unemployment going 3.9% to 3.5% and a massive reduction when it comes federal spending has also helped.
Both Dewey and Truman also have film reels shown in movie theaters with Truman’s looking more low budget compare to the expensive film footage used by Dewey which is actually going to make Dewey look unappealing to farmers and labor workers who are voting in areas within the midwest, but despite all of this and Truman’s numbers in the polls getting much better everyone in Washington and in the media are heading into election day predicting a big victory for Republicans…Did it that happen, well let’s look at the results.
As you can see from the electoral map, Harry S. Truman won the election remaining the 33rd president in U.S. History; Truman received 303 electoral votes and 49.6% of the popular vote making him the first president since Calvin Coolidge in 1924 to win re-election after becoming president through the death of his predecessor.
Governor Thomas E. Dewey reportedly went to sleep at the Roosevelt Hotel waiting to be woken up that he’ll be the new president of the United States…only to discover that he ended up getting 189 electoral votes and 45.1% of the popular vote.
After the results of the election were made clear, Harry Truman got his hands on one of the Chicago Tribune newspapers that had the infamous headline regarding his defeat to Dewey and when the time came for the president to take photos following the race, he proudly held up the newspaper with a big smile on his face.
Strom Thurmond and the State’s Rights Democratic Party came in third with 39 electoral votes (which were the states of South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana and an electoral vote in Tennessee) and 2.4% of the popular vote which was the lowest popular vote percentage for a third party that got electoral votes.
Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party came in fourth place with no electoral votes but got 2.4% of the popular which was 19,000 votes less than Thurmond and it also was the last time a candidate ran with a progressive party in a presidential election.
And that’s the election of 1948, Harry Truman has defied the odds to become president in his own right and pulled off the greatest upset in presidential election history