The Greatest Political Upset Of All Time

In the election of 1948, the Chicago Tribune published an early edition of their paper. The banner read, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”

There was only one problem. Dewey didn’t defeat Truman.

In what is hailed as the greatest political upset in presidential history, Democratic incumbent Harry S. Truman defeated his challenger Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. Truman won by 2 million popular votes.

In the days preceding the vote, political analysts and pollsters indicated that Truman didn’t have a chance.

We still haven’t learned that the polls aren’t always right.

Harry Truman was thrown into the presidency by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Approaching the 1948 election, he stood a rather slim chance. Though his guidance through the end of World War II and into an ailing post-war world were admirable, many voters just didn’t believe that he matched up with his predecessor.

But, if that’s the comparison — I don’t think anyone could fill those shoes.

Truman also wasn’t popular among Southern Democrats. Truman advocated for civil rights. I don’t think I need to elaborate on that.

But, Truman wasn’t some nobody. He served as the Judge in Jackson County, Missouri for nearly 12 years. He then went on to serve as the U.S. Senator from Missouri for another 10. And don’t forget that he was a Vice President as well.

In response to unfavorable polling, Truman traveled on a ‘whistle-stop’ tour across the United States. At the time, this was viewed as a rather effective way to campaign.

A whistle-stop tour is generally regarded as a style of campaigning where politicians and candidates make a series of brief appearances in small towns. Usually, the speeches were given right from the train car.

Truman used this method in an effort to win back the White House. He portrayed a message of being a political outsider and contending with a ‘do-nothing’ Congress.

Though he had a lengthy political career Truman truly was a simple man. Before entering politics he was a farmer. He was seen as an honest man filled with integrity.

The question you might be asking: Why were Truman’s favorability ratings low?

It’s true that he was an honest and plain-spoken man. People liked that. But, it was apparent that maybe he wasn’t the greatest at governing. I say cut him a little slack.

But, here’s the reason. In 1946, Truman’s reputation had been slightly tarnished with a rising inflation rate and labor unrest. Because of this the Democrats had lost control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 14 years.

With that being said, it’s amazing they gave him the nomination.

Further diminishing Truman’s prospects leading up the the 1948 election were divisions within the Democratic party. His civil rights agenda alienated the Southern wing of the party. In fact, those members had exited stage left to form the State’s Rights Democratic Party (the Dixiecrats) and selected Strom Thurmond (who was, shall we say, well regarded by White Southerners) of South Carolina as their nominee.

With a tarnished reputation and in-fighting it appeared that Dewey had all but won the election. So, he ran a rather uninspiring, risk-averse campaign. One newspaper wrote that his four major speeches could actually be dwindled down to only four sentences: “Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. The future lies ahead.”

Meanwhile, Truman employed a more populist approach. He embarked on his ‘whistle-stop’ tours, and blamed the do-nothing Republican Congress for his failures.

There’s a lot to be taken away from this election. First, polls can be accurate. But, take them with a grain of salt. Numbers can be accurate but not always representative. Second, populism wins. Always. Third, don’t print your story until you’ve checked your information.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading!

-History Hero


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