Last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to join Iain Martin of Reaction’s hour-long video chat with historian and Stanford university fellow Niall Ferguson. As ever with Ferguson it was an erudite and illuminating session, ranging across the presidential election, Trump’s four years, the Covid response, Scottish politics and China.
One of his many riffs though struck me hard: is this presidential election about to be 1948 again? Trump is done according to everyone who is anyone in America, reported the good professor, before confessing to a love of being a contrarian and then reminding us that in ’48 Truman beat Dewey. This was despite every poll and every commentator saying Truman was, like Trump, utterly done for. As Ferguson said: “I just can’t help wondering…”
2nd November 1948 was easily one of the biggest upsets in presidential history. Harry S. Truman had inherited the presidency from FDR – who died midterm in 1945 – and was seeking a second term against Republican governor Thomas E. Dewey. There was a serious third party candidate in the form of ex-Democrat Strom Thurmond who stood on a so-called ‘Dixiecrat’ ticket in protest at civil rights proposals. Democratic difficulties were compounded by a left-wing fourth party, the newly formed Progressive Party under FDR’s former veep, Henry Wallace. All the predictions, including the polls, indicated an easy Republic win for Dewey, although his opponent was gaining some ground in the last few days. Newspaper pundits even wrote that a Truman win was “impossible”; the Chicago Tribune being so confident they printed the now famous headline on the morning of the 3rd: “Dewey Defeats Truman”.
Yet Truman had actually won the election with 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189. Thurmond managed to take the southern (and in those days Democratic stronghold) states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and S Carolina to gain 39 ECV.
So, what happened? Given the splintering in left of centre votes and Truman’s unpopularity it seemed all the Republicans had to do was not make any serious mistakes during the final weeks of the campaign (sounds familiar). Dewey made campaign stump speeches devoid of content to avoid upsetting the apple cart, to the point that one of the slogans was: “Our future lies ahead of us.”
In another surprising echo, knowing he was way behind, Truman went all out offensive. Slagging off Dewey by name on the stump, calling the GOP blood sucking princes of privilege and warning a Republican win meant a new Great Depression. He toured the country, speaking to large enthusiastic rallies at which the crowd would yell, “Give ‘em hell Harry.”
And the uncanny echoes keep coming. Nobody thought Truman could win. The polls were dire. The campaign was desperately short on funds. Even his own wife thought he had no chance. Only Truman himself believed he would win.
How did he pull it off? Some historians cite the campaigns’ official newsreel films, shown at cinemas in the last few days, as being a major last minute factor. Dewey’s was very slick and professional. Truman’s was thrown together on a shoestring but was seen as more effective. Others argue that polling was unsophisticated by today’s standards and yet out of touch pundits and commentators believed the results. Black voters certainly pitched in, attracted by the civil rights agenda (which was helped by Truman not having to worry too much about Southern Democrat segregationist views anymore). Mid-West farmers did their bit. And Truman had a GOP-dominated congress to run against, which he did – hard – calling it “do nothing”. The president took to a train and criss-crossed the country in what was derided as “whistle-stop” tours but actually meant a lot of voters saw him in the flesh. The successful Berlin airlift was seen as a foreign policy ‘win’ for Truman. Finally, economic news was improving in the final stages of the campaign.
Could it happen again? Is Trump really Harry S. Truman? Ferguson puts a repeat of 1948 at no more than 10%. But he is sceptical of the polls, warning Biden bettors that there is a big shy Trump vote who are not telling pollsters the truth about their intentions. “It’s not all over,” he said.
We have been warned.
Rotten is long-standing poster on PB who was heavily involved in local politics in the Midlands before retiring to lick his wounds.