Do You Remember: the Last Old-Fashioned Presidential Campaign

What do you know of the Presidential race between Harry S. Truman and Thomas E. Dewey, one one where Truman came from behind to beat the anointed “next President,” Dewey? Do you realize it was really a four-party race?

290px-Deweytruman12 “Dewey Defeats Truman” was a famously incorrect banner headline on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on November 3, 1948, the day after incumbent United States President Harry S. Truman won an upset victory over Republican challenger and Governor of New York Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 presidential election.

The Chicago Tribune‘s erroneous headline became notorious after a jubilant Truman was photographed holding a copy of the paper during a stop at St. Louis Union Station while returning by train from his home in Independence, Missouri, to Washington, D.C. The Tribune, which had once referred to Truman as a “nincompoop,” was a famously Republican-leaning paper. In a retrospective article over half a century later about the newspaper’s most famous and embarrassing headline, the Tribune wrote that Truman “had as low an opinion of the Tribune as it did of him.”

For about a year prior to the 1948 general election, the printers who operated the linotype machines at the Chicago Tribune and other Chicago papers had been on strike, in protest of the Taft–Hartley Act. Around the same time, the Tribune had switched to a method in which copy for the paper was composed on typewriters and photographed and then engraved onto the printing plates. This process required the paper to go to press several hours earlier than usual.

On election night, this earlier press deadline required the first post-election issue of the Tribune to go to press before even the East coast states had reported many results from the polling places. The paper relied on its veteran Washington correspondent and political analyst Arthur Sears Henning, who had predicted the winner in four out of five presidential contests in the past 20 years. Conventional wisdom, supported by polls, was almost unanimous that a Dewey presidency was “inevitable,” and that the New York governor would win the election handily. The first (one-star) edition of the Tribune therefore went to press with the banner headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”

The story by Tribune correspondent Henning also reported Republican control of the House of Representatives and Senate that would work with President-elect Dewey. Henning wrote that “Dewey and Warren won a sweeping victory in the presidential election yesterday. The early returns showed the Republican ticket leading Truman and Barkley pretty consistently in the western and southern states” and added that “indications were that the complete returns would disclose that Dewey won the presidency by an overwhelming majority of the electoral vote.”

As returns began to indicate a close race later in the evening, Henning continued to stick to his prediction, and thousands of papers continued to roll off the presses with the banner headline predicting a Dewey victory. Even after the paper’s lead story was rewritten to emphasize local races and to indicate the narrowness of Dewey’s lead in the national race, the same banner headline was left on the front page. Only late in the evening, after press dispatches cast doubt upon the certainty of Dewey’s victory, did the Tribune change the headline to “DEMOCRATS MAKE SWEEP OF STATE OFFICES” for the later two-star edition. Some 150,000 copies of the paper had already been published with the erroneous headline before the gaffe was corrected.

Truman, as it turned out, won the electoral vote by a 303–189–39 majority over Dewey and Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond, though a swing of just a few thousand votes in Ohio, Illinois, and California would have produced a Dewey victory.

Instead of a Republican sweep of the White House and hold of both houses of Congress, the Democrats not only won the Presidency but also took over control of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

245px-ThomasDewey The other major candidate in the race was Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican Party nominee. Although Life magazine had “named” Dewey the winner nearly a year prior to the election in its pre-election issue, Dewey had come off as haughty and out of touch with the American public. Dewey had previously given Franklin Roosevelt a close race in 1944. He represented the liberal wing of the party. To his benefit, Dewey was seen as hard-working and incorruptible.

220px-Robert_a_taft An early Republican possibility was Ohio Senator Robert Taft, the son of President and Chief Justice, William Howard Taft. The younger Taft was extremely conservative. As the U.S. Senate’s main opponent of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal domestic policies, after Roosevelt’s death Taft successfully led the conservative coalition’s effort to curb the expanding power of labor unions in America. Taft was also a major advocate of the foreign policy of non-interventionism. He battled New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey (leader of the moderate “Eastern Establishment”) for control of the national Republican Party. Chief Taft biographer James T. Patterson portrayed Taft as honest, conscientious, courageous, dignified, and highly intelligent, while also faulting Taft’s competitiveness and extreme partisanship.

230px-Harold_Stassen A third Republican candidate had been Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen. Stassen was later best known for being a perennial candidate for the Republican Party nomination for President of the United States, seeking it 13 times between 1940 and 2000 (1940, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1964, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992. Stassen’s strongest bid for the Republican presidential nomination was in 1948, when he won a series of upset victories in early primaries. His challenge to the front runner, New York Governor and 1944 G.O.P. presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey, was serious enough that Dewey challenged Stassen to a debate on the night before the Oregon Republican primary. The May 17 Dewey–Stassen debate was the first recorded modern debate between presidential candidates to take place in the United States. The debate, which concerned the criminalization of the Communist Party of the United States, was broadcast over the radio throughout the nation.

Vice-President Harry Truman had taken office with the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. Everyone agreed that although Truman was likable, he did not possess his predecessor’s innate power of presence, nor did he speak with an authoritative voice. The major for Truman, however, came in the form of FDR’s long term. In the 1946 Congressional elections, the Republicans adopted the slogan “Had Enough?” referring to the 16 year reign of the Democratic party. Many of the more liberal and conservative members of the party left, among them the former Vice President Henry Wallace.

220px-Henry-A.-Wallace-Townsend Henry Agard Wallace (October 7, 1888 – November 18, 1965) was the 33rd Vice President of the United States (1941–1945), the Secretary of Agriculture (1933–1940), and the Secretary of Commerce (1945–1946). In the 1948 presidential election, Wallace was the nominee of the Progressive Party. With Idaho Democratic U.S. Senator Glen H. Taylor as his running mate, his platform advocated friendly relations with the Soviet Union, an end to the nascent Cold War, an end to segregation, full voting rights for blacks, and universal government health insurance. His campaign was unusual for his time in that it included African American candidates campaigning alongside white candidates in the American South, and that during the campaign he refused to appear before segregated audiences or to eat or stay in segregated establishments.

220px-Strom_ThurmondThe far-right wing of the Democratic party formed the States Rights Democratic (Dixiecrat) Party and nominated South Carolina Strom Thurmond. The Dixiecrats strongly opposed Truman’s ideas on civil rights. James Strom Thurmond (December 5, 1902 – June 26, 2003) was an American politician who served for 48 years as a United States Senator. He ran for president in 1948 as the States Rights Democratic Party candidate, receiving 2.4% of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes. Thurmond represented South Carolina in the United States Senate from 1954 until 2003, at first as a Democrat and, after 1964, as a Republican. He switched because of his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, disaffection with the liberalism of the national party, and his support for the conservatism and opposition to the Civil Rights bill of the Republican presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater.

At the final count, Truman had won 304 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189 and Thurmond’s 38.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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