- - Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election rivals only one other in recent history. In 1948 Harry S. Truman, who as vice president became chief executive with the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945, was expected to fail in his bid to stay in the White House. Why? Because he had been feisty and controversial in his truncated term, so much so that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party split, as did the states-righters or Dixiecrats. So Truman faced not only popular Republican New York governor and prior presidential candidate, Thomas Dewey, but his party bolters, progressive Henry Wallace (a former vice president of FDR) and Strom Thurmond, governor of South Carolina.

From the very beginning of the campaign, when Truman accepted his party’s nomination and chose a 71-year old Kentucky senator as his vice president, Truman was confident: “Senator [Alben] Barkley and I will win this election,” he announced, “and make these Republicans like it — don’t forget that!”

But Truman had a slew of problems. He threatened to draft railway strikers into the armed forces to force them to settle with management. And he used his war powers to seize several industries, taking control of coal fields, oil refineries and meat-packing houses. Such labor problems and inflation resulted in 1946 in the GOP taking over both houses of Congress, something that hadn’t happened since 1928. The 80th Congress that resulted was one of the most conservative of the 20th century, legislating a tax bill that favored the wealthy, rejecting civil rights reforms and passing the Taft-Hartley act over Truman’s veto that curbed labor union powers. And in choosing Barkley as his veep, Truman was defying conventional wisdom that an elderly gentleman from a state with few electoral votes had little voter appeal.

Six weeks before the election, Newsweek polled 50 experts asking who they thought would win. All 50 picked Dewey. As Election Day neared, newspapers in a chorus, including The Wall Street Journal, looked not only toward a President Dewey’s agenda but a humongous popular and electoral vote victory. But Truman and Sen. Barkley “whistle-stopped” by train throughout the country, choosing small towns that the Republicans criticized as a desperation strategy to make the president’s effort less a landslide than predicted. Unexpectedly, Truman’s audience gave him a slogan to capitalize on: “Give ‘em hell, Harry,” they shouted. No matter that Democratic Party officials cut funding in preparation for a big defeat.

Election night was no different. The Chicago Tribune, even before polls closed, came out with an early edition headline that read: “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” Republican leaders gathered in upscale hotels in New York City were preparing for an all-night celebration. Truman’s more sober account on election night tells it all. He had a sandwich and glass of buttermilk at home in Independence, Mo., and went to bed at 6:30. About midnight he awoke and turned on the radio. “I had on the National Broadcasting Company and commentator [H. V. Kaltenborn] was saying, ‘While the president is a million votes ahead in the popular vote, we … are very sure that when the country vote comes in, Mr. Truman will be defeated by an overwhelming majority.’ And I went back to bed and went to sleep.”

At 4 a.m. the chief of the Secret Service awakened Truman to listen to the results again. Commentator Kaltenborn was opining that the election was certain to be thrown into the House of Representatives that would readily elect Dewey. The president told the Secret Service chief: “We better go back to Kansas City. It looks as if I’m elected.”

It was a blowout for Truman, defeating Dewey by more than 2 million votes, with an electoral margin of 303 to 189 and 39 for Thurmond.

If all this sounds familiar in the case of Donald Trump, well, it is. Obviously, polling in 1948 was in its infancy, with sophisticated — and still sometimes unreliable — techniques far out in the future. What was learned in 1948 is that the interviews that pollsters conducted with voters stopped several weeks before the election under the assumption that minds wouldn’t be changed. Worse was the terrible sampling that resulted in Republicans being easier to find and interview than Democrats.

Just the opposite with respect to the 2016 campaign, with Republican voters more elusive to pollsters.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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