"When All the Experts Got It Wrong:

Harry Truman's Upset Presidential Victory, 1948

L. Patrick Hughes, Austin Community College


With mischievous glee, President Truman hoisted the post-election copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune aloft for all in the assembled crowd at Union Station to see. One lucky journalist caught the moment on film, producing one of the most memorable political photographs of the twentieth century.

So utterly convinced was the partisan Republican paper from the nation's heartland that challenger Thomas E. Dewey would defeat the embattled incumbent, its editors had rushed the issue with the screaming headline "Dewey Defeats Truman" to newsstands prior to the close of voting. While it backfired, the decision had appeared reasonable. Every public opinion poll conducted throughout 1948 had shown Truman losing. The outcome appeared so certain, the respected Gallup organization had quit collecting data ten days before the election. Defections and insurgencies within the president's own party seemingly doomed his chances. Progressive party candidate Henry A. Wallace appealed to disgruntled northern liberals while irate southern segregationists vowed to cast their ballots for Strom Thurmond and the States Rights/"Dixiecrat" party. Republicans, confident of their return to the Oval Office for the first time in sixteen years, were already celebrating victory. Only Truman felt he had a chance. It thus came as an absolute shock when the fiery Missouri banty rooster triumphed with the voters and all the experts were left to explain how they had gotten it so completely wrong.

The Death of the New Deal Spirit and the Republican Resurgence

President Truman's reelection in 1948 was so startling to many because it seemed to run against the tide of an increasingly conservative political trend in the United States. World War II, in many ways, marked the death of the New Deal spirit of reform which had characterized the depression years of the 1930s. Having been called upon to make personal sacrifices on numerous fronts in order to defeat the threat of the Axis powers, Americans emerged from the war hoping to make up for lost ground. They looked forward to an immediate return of economic prosperity. People were tired of governmental controls such as wage and price restrictions, rationing, etc. and demanded their rapid abandonment by the Truman administration. Instead, shortages of food, fuel, and other commodities seemed to continue unnecessarily. When peace didn't produce instant prosperity and unfettered opportunity, citizens blamed Truman, who presided over their nation only because of Franklin Roosevelt's death in April 1945. Millions of citizens knew absolutely nothing about the man from Missouri who spoke with the funny Midwest twang and wore glasses with lenses that looked like the bottoms of coke bottles. More and more questioned the country's direction under his leadership.

The Republican party, hoping to take advantage of the building dissatisfaction with the status quo, launched its quest to take back Congress in 1946 utilizing slogans such as "Had Enough?" and "It's Time for a Change." The most partisan sported campaign buttons proclaiming "To Err is Truman." If victorious, Republican National Committee Chairman B. Carroll Reece promised an end to controls and the return of "orderly, capable and honest government." The strategy struck a chord with voters. Republican candidates swept to victory in most parts of the country. Picking up fifty-six seats in the House of Representatives and thirteen seats in the Senate, Republicans gained control of Congress, began steering the country in a more conservative direction domestically, and set their sights on recapturing the presidency two years hence.

While the new Republican 80th Congress supported the president in foreign affairs, approving the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and aid for Greece and Turkey as the Cold War with the Soviet Union began in earnest, confrontation and conflict beset the domestic arena. President Truman, hoping to moderately further the New Deal revolution of his predecessor, proposed extensions of and increased funding for education, housing, subsidized medical care for the elderly, and social security. His proposals came to naught on Capitol Hill, where conservatives of both parties by and large ignored these "Fair Deal" initiatives. Instead, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over presidential veto in 1947. Fearing that labor unions had grown too powerful and were in the hands of left-leaning extremists, congressmen attacked one of the Democratic Party's most important constituencies - organized labor. The legislation outlawed the "closed shop," where union membership was a prerequisite to employment, and banned secondary boycotts. Congress and president clashed over budget appropriations. Truman three times vetoed what he saw as a dangerous tax reduction bill before it became law over his opposition. Additionally, presidential spending proposals were consistently reduced before enactment. The momentum of reform, which had swept across America in the preceding decade, appeared stymied at every turn and the president's approval rating spiraled downward.

A Party in Turmoil

Equally frustrating to Truman had to be the growing factionalism within his own ranks. While the "Roosevelt Coalition," fashioned in the mid-Thirties, returned Democrats to dominance for the first time in three-quarters of a century, the union of so many divergent and oft-conflicting elements was difficult to manage at best. More often than not, Democrats spent more time fighting one another than doing battle against their Republican opponents. Numerous issues drove a wedge between the wings of the party.

As the approaching 1948 presidential election lay just over the horizon, ideological tensions rent the Democratic Party into three factions, each of which could play a pivotal part in determining the outcome of the upcoming contest.

The most liberal elements of the coalition believed Truman far too conservative; he was too willing to compromise with reactionary elements and had abandoned the liberal principles of his predecessor. He had led the party to its sweeping defeat in 1946 and appeared incapable of driving his Fair Deal initiatives through the Republican Congress. Civil rights progress was of critical importance to such individuals from both ideological and pragmatic political perspectives. Ending the American system of "separate but equal" segregation and political disfranchisement was a moral imperative for them. How could the United States do battle with the Soviet Union for the future of the world if our own system of apartheid went unchallenged? From a more immediate and pragmatic point of view, cementing the newly won Black constituency was necessary for political survival. The massive migration of Blacks from the Deep South to northern industrial centers during the Great Depression and World War II changed the political landscape entirely. Here was a growing constituency no longer disfranchised as it had been in Dixie. Able to fully exercise their constitutional rights at the ballot box, Black citizens no longer suffered in silence. Moral considerations notwithstanding, ignoring such a potentially powerful constituency amounted to political suicide.

At the other extreme lay the southern wing of the party. Committed to smaller, less active government, southern Democrats had historically resisted federal activism and intrusion into what were seen as purely local matters south of the Mason-Dixon line. Support of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal agenda at the depths of the Great Depression occurred only when it was the only alternative to either Herbert Hoover or revolution in the streets. This, however, was an anomaly. Once economic conditions stabilized by 1937, conservatives from Dixie abandoned the president and party liberals, opposing court packing, executive branch reorganization, wages & hours legislation, pro-labor proposals, and compensatory federal spending. Entering into a congressional coalition with Republicans, they halted the New Deal in its tracks. Because of their long heritage, they were as yet unwilling to become Republicans. That possibility, however, was not out of the question should their liberal brethren push civil rights change down their throats.

Historically essential to the party's success in national elections, the southern wing was adamantly opposed to ANY federal action in the field of race relations. Since the final withdrawal of federal troops from their region ending the Reconstruction era in 1877, southerners, Democrats all, had demanded "home rule" as the price of their support. It was their litmus test and they held what amounted to veto power over the election of Democratic presidential candidates. Should they abandon the nominee, the northern wing by itself lacked the votes in the Electoral College to successfully challenge the Grand Old Party. Similarly, the region's representatives in Congress enjoyed, indeed flaunted, a stranglehold over actions in Washington, D. C. Manipulation of the seniority system gave southerners powerful committee chairmanships, made them invaluable to Democratic presidents, and allowed them to squelch demands for action in the field of civil rights. Even Franklin Roosevelt refused to go to the mat on this topic; he simply couldn't afford to lose the support of such congressional titans in dealing with the economic catastrophe of the depression in the Thirties. If all else failed, southern senators could always fall back on the filibuster technique to kill civil rights proposals; no such filibuster had ever been broken by the invocation of cloture.

Ideological moderates and pragmatists occupied the middle ground. Aware of the increasing insistence of northern liberals for civil rights progress regardless of political consequences and the determination of southern conservatives to block such change even if it plunged the party into electoral oblivion, moderates and pragmatists held the fate of civil rights and the Democratic party in their hands. Could fratricidal intra-party warfare over the issue somehow be avoided? Was the moral issue worth the loss of national office and the control of Congress? Would they allow pragmatism to forever override the moral imperative of racial justice and equality under the law?

The Cauldron Boils Over

This long-festering quandary boiled over in early 1948 when President Truman, who had never evidenced any commitment to racial equality, bit the bullet, becoming the first chief executive since Reconstruction to demand legislation in the field of civil rights. The president had appointed a blue ribbon commission in 1946 to examine the state of race relations in the United States. The panel made public its report, entitled "To Secure These Rights," in 1947. The document shocked Truman, aghast at the horrors of discrimination and bigotry he found detailed therein. The commission's proposals - a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), creation of a permanent civil rights commission, and the denial of federal monies to segregated schools - became the basis for Truman's call to arms on February 2, 1948. Even before his civil rights message to Congress, southern Democrats were reacting to the commission's report. Said newly-elected Governor Fielding Wright of Mississippi in his January inaugural address: "As a lifelong Democrat, as a descendant of Democrats, as governor of the most Democratic state, I would regret to see the day come when Mississippi or the South should break with the Democratic party in a national election. But vital principles and eternal truths transcend party lines. We must make our leaders fully realize we mean precisely what we say and we must, if necessary, implement our words with positive action. We warn them now to take heed."

Truman, facing reelection and needing the votes of both southern conservatives and northern liberals including Blacks, went forward despite the ominous warnings emanating from Dixie. The president called upon Congress to abolish the poll tax, enact a federal anti-lynching law, create the FEPC, establish a permanent commission on civil rights, and ban segregation in all interstate transportation vehicles and facilities.

The explosion from southerners was instantaneous. Senator James O. Eastland (D-Mississippi) stated "this proves that organized mongrel minorities control the government" while Representative Gene Cox (D-Georgia) expounded that Truman's proposals "sound like the program of the Communist Party." Governor Strom Thurmond (D-Georgia) termed the president's initiative "a stab in the back" that would be "as detrimental to the South as those proposed in the Reconstruction period by the Republican party." Southern governors, preparing to meet in Florida to plot strategy on how to kill the measures, warned Democratic Party chairman Howard McGrath that "the South is no longer in the bag." Indeed, Governor Thurmond called for southerners to "stand together in the Electoral College" in the upcoming national election. His strategy, if successful, would deny either party a majority and the election's outcome would be thrown into the House of Representatives where the South could demand the defeat of the Truman bills for its support.

Faced with the possible defection of the southern wing, the president did little to push congressional enactment of his civil rights proposals. That could wait until after the election. He therefore attempted to downplay the issue in order to avoid further alienating Dixie.

Rebellion was unavoidable at the other end of the ideological spectrum. Ultraliberals, for the moment at least, stood mesmerized by the siren's song of Henry A. Wallace, ex-Secretary of Agriculture, ex-Secretary of Commerce, and Franklin Roosevelt's second vice-president. Unacceptable as chief executive to party leaders aware FDR was unlikely to survive a fourth term of office, Wallace had been jettisoned from the national ticket in 1944 in favor of the more moderate Senator Truman. Four years later, those of the Democratic extreme-left set out to rectify the injustice which had denied their champion the presidency upon Roosevelt's death in April 1945. Rejecting what they saw as Truman's more conservative domestic policies and bewailing the dissolution of the country's wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, Wallace supporters embarked upon a quixotic crusade to oust the interloper from Missouri. They were little concerned about the electability of their own hero as a third party candidate. At minimum, a challenge from the far left might force the incumbent in a more liberal direction at home and to adopt a more conciliatory attitude abroad.

As the president and his closest advisors formulated strategy for the upcoming campaign, Truman understood instinctively that above all else he must occupy the middle ground. With Wallacites already in revolt and Dixie teetering on the brink, the Missouri pragmatist realized any attempt to placate extremists was likely to be counterproductive. The "red hots" were loud in volume but few in number. The great mass of voters in both his own party and the general electorate lay in the middle, the broad political mainstream. Far better to adhere to his present course, portray his tormentors as radicals likely to plunge party and nation into turmoil, and appeal to moderates of all persuasions.

charge.jpg (79460 bytes)The embattled president had additional reason to look past the doom and gloom of the current situation. A seasoned political veteran, he was aware that many of his critics of spring and summer would probably return to the fold on Election Day, especially if he gave them reason to do so. Throughout the republic's history, early rhetorical support for third- and fourth-party insurgents inexorably evaporates in the harsh light of November reality. Third parties never win, or so the overwhelming majority of Americans believe. Therefore, a ballot cast for a minor party candidate may give vent to the spleen but forfeits any impact on the outcome of the real contest between major party nominees. Even when less than satisfied with the major contenders, most citizens swallow hard and vote for the one considered less objectionable. Such an oft-repeated phenomenon was likely to reoccur yet again in 1948. The key for Truman was in persuading the majority of the temporarily dissatisfied that he was the least objectionable of the viable alternatives. Some events, however, were beyond his control as delegates to the Democratic nominating convention began assembling in Philadelphia.

"Philadelphia Freedom"

As the quadrennial convocation of Democrats began in the "City of Brotherly Love," love, brotherly or otherwise, was nowhere to be found. Delegates were in a quarrelsome mood and less than optimistic about the party's chances in the general election ahead.

Southern firebrands vowed vengeance on Truman. Hoping against hope to somehow deny him renomination, they warned loudly and repeatedly that a party embrace of the president's civil rights proposals would result in a southern walkout and Dixie's defection in November. Liberals such as Hubert Humphrey, reformist mayor of Minneapolis and candidate for the United States Senate, were of the opposite mind. Driven equally by conviction and political reality in their region of the country, they argued for a rigorous endorsement of Truman's call for civil rights action. Incumbents from all geographic sections and ideological factions sought to determine what course of action would best guarantee their continuation in office.

Now narrowly focused on his reelection bid, President Truman and his operatives sought party unity and were willing to straddle the fence in hopes of avoiding a southern walkout. To this end, the administration exerted its influence on the platform committee to adopt the same mild plan on civil rights used in previous years to paper over Democratic differences on the volatile issue. While the position statement maintained Democrats' belief that minorities had "the right to live, develop, and vote equally with all citizens," it committed the party to no specific measures to make that theoretical right reality. The attempted compromise would go to the convention floor as the majority report of the platform committee but was unacceptable to northern liberals and southern segregationists, both of whom vowed to take their opposition to the delegates at large.

Opposition to Truman also took the form of the chimerical candidacy of Senator Richard Russell. The dean and most influential member of the southern congressional delegation, Russell, a party loyalist, was every bit as irate over the prospect of civil rights legislation as firebrands such as Strom Thurmond and Fielding Wright. He, however, rejected the prospect of a doomed third party challenge, choosing instead to offer his candidacy as a rallying point for southern Democrats. The results of the balloting were not surprising. Delegates selected Truman as their standard bearer over Russell by a four-to-one margin and named Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky as his running mate.

The overwhelming majority of delegates nonetheless exhibited little hope the incumbent president could somehow lead the party to victory in November's general election. Truman thought otherwise. In accepting their nomination, his first words to the delegates reflected the fighting spirit that would characterize his entire campaign. "Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it - don't you forget that!" His speech excoriated the Republican Party as the handmaiden of "special interests" and "the privileged few." He then turned his wrath on what he labeled "the Do-Nothing 80th Congress," which had betrayed the people with its mulish inaction over the preceding year and a half. After listing what he felt were that session's numerous deficiencies, he electrified the Philadelphia convention by announcing that he was calling Congress back into special session

"to pass the laws to halt rising prices, to meet the housing crisis -which they are saying they are for in their platform. At the same time, I shall ask them to act upon other vitally needed measures, such as aid to education, which they say they are for; a national health program; civil rights legislation, which they say they are for; an increase in the minimum wage, which I doubt very much they are for; extension of the Social Security coverage and increased benefits, which they say they are for; funds for projects needed in our program to provide public power and cheap electricity." "Now my friends, if there is any reality behind that Republican platform, we ought to get some action from a short session of the Eightieth Congress. They can do this job in fifteen days, if they want to do it."

Truman knew of course that a special session would produce no settlement of the legislative stalemate. The failure of the Republican congress to enact such programs, however, would highlight Truman's allegation that it was do-nothing and reactionary Republicans blocking progress. His call to arms reached out to the New Deal constituencies upon which his reelection bid would rest and energized Democratic activists across the nation.

What platform Truman would run on was still to be determined. True to their word, conservatives from Dixie offered three different amendments, all of which decried the president's actions and defended the power of states to maintain segregation. Two were rejected by voice vote and that offered by former Texas governor Dan Moody fell by a three-to-one margin. Thurmond lashed out in defeat. "We have been betrayed and the guilty should not go unpunished." Southerners had to "stand together, fight together, and if necessary go down together…..We should place principle above party even if it means political defeat."

In reality, segregationists had never had a chance on the platform question given their relative lack of numbers. Liberals from the northeast and Far West were another matter entirely. In a delicious twist of irony, they determined to challenge the president's wishes on the platform in order to further his February 2nd call for civil rights legislation. While Truman was intent on winning the upcoming election, the moderate left would settle for nothing less than unequivocally committing the party to the causes of racial equality and justice. The substitute motion made this clear:

We highly commend President Harry S. Truman for his courageous stand on the issue of civil rights.

We call upon Congress to support our President in guaranteeing these basic and fundamental American Principles: (1) the right of full and equal political participation; (2) the right to equal opportunity of employment; (3) the right of security of person; (4) and the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our nation.
Their gamble hinged on somehow convincing moderate delegates. That job fell to Hubert Humphrey. As the ebullient Humphrey strode to the dais to make the case, one Tennessee delegate, sensing what lay ahead, noted to a reporter that "…you are witnessing here today the dissolution of the Democratic Party in the South."

Rarely, if ever, has one speaker so completely captivated a national nominating convention. Decades later, those in attendance could recall every particular. (See appendix for complete text of Humphrey's speech.) As Humphrey began his remarks in favor of the minority report, delegates realized the future of the party and perhaps the nation hung in the balance. Said the mayor:

humphrey.jpg (70130 bytes)Friends, delegates, I do not believe that there can be any compromise of the guarantees of civil rights which we have mentioned in the minority report. In spite of my desire for unanimous agreement on the entire platform, in spite of my desire to see everybody here in unanimous agreement, there are some matters which I think must be stated clearly and without qualification. There can be no hedging - no watering down. The newspaper headlines are wrong.

There will be no hedging, and there will be no watering down, if you please, of the instruments and the principles of the civil rights program.

My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say we are 172 years too late!

Despite every indication that southern delegates were prepared to walk out of in protest, delegates approved the Humphrey substitute plan by a vote of 651.5 to 582.5. Between Truman's first ballot nomination over Richard Russell and passage of the strong civil rights plank, the South and the new Democratic Party had reached a turning point. To a man, the Mississippi delegation walked out of the hall in protest. Thirteen members of the Alabama delegation followed. As later events would demonstrate, the days of the solid Democratic south were passing into history.

Against All Odds

truman.jpg (29649 bytes)Immediately following adjournment of the Philadelphia convention, Governor Fielding of Mississippi and Frank Dixon, former governor of Alabama, announced plans for a meeting of dissident southerners to convene in Birmingham. They next approached Governor Thurmond with the idea of running as a third party candidate. Only thereby could Truman be denied the south. The South Carolina governor thought the matter over for less than an hour before agreeing to make the campaign. Delegates quickly nominated Thurmond and chose Governor Fielding as his running mate. The States' Rights Party, more popularly known as the Dixiecrats, urged Democratic state officials throughout the south to substitute Thurmond and Wright for Truman and Barkley as the Democratic candidates on their official ballots. Their platform, adopted in record time, decried Truman's civil rights proposals as an invasion of states rights and alleged they were meant "to embarrass and humiliate the South." The party envisioned no compromise on the question. "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race." The demand for strict observance of Article X of the Bill of Rights, reserving to the states all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government by the Constitution, was stated forcefully. Unless this was done, the rebels warned, the growth of federal power would soon produce a totalitarian police state.

While the insurrection afoot in Dixie was of concern to the Truman forces, the president and his advisors took note of the fact that the overwhelming majority of southern Democratic office holders and party functionaries - some of the most bitter critics of the administration's civil rights stand - had shunned the call to Birmingham and revolt. They, it appeared, were concerned above all else with retaining office and their position within the party. They would repeatedly voice their opposition to the president's civil rights plan but refused any association with an undertaking that was clearly electoral folly. Truman would do nothing on campaign swings through the region to rock the boat. Thus, political pragmatism doomed the Dixiecrats from the beginning. In only four states, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, would Thurmond and Wright appear on the November ballot in place of Truman and Barkley.

With each passing day it also became more evident that Henry Wallace and his Progressive Party wouldn't attract the number of liberal voters necessary to determine the election outcome. Ignoring the reality of American politics that dooms those perceived as extremists, the Progressives took positions that drove the majority of liberals running back to the president. The party platform denounced Truman's "get tough" policy with the Soviet Union, blaming him for the onset of the Cold War. Other planks demanded American military disarmament, the abandonment of West Berlin to the socialist world, the nationalization of all key industries in the United States, as well as the retirement giveaway known as the Townsend Plan. While movement leaders denied any communist influence within their ranks, Wallace refused to repudiate the Communist Party, U.S.A. when it officially endorsed his candidacy.

That left the Republicans. Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York who had run a respectable but losing race four years earlier against Franklin Roosevelt, and Governor Earl Warren of California were anointed the party's standard bearers. The G.O.P.'s platform pledged backing for a "bipartisan foreign policy" against the Soviet Union while simultaneously attacking the Democratic administration for its failure to render all-out aid to Chang Kai-sheck's embattled Nationalist Chinese forces in the civil war against communist leader Mao Tse-tung. Delegates endorsed statements supporting increased housing and civil rights legislation. Alluding to reputed infiltration of the Truman government by communist sympathizers, the platform promised to vigorously track down and expose such un-American elements.

out_of_my_way.jpg (35219 bytes)As the traditional Labor Day kickoff of formal campaigning neared, President Truman, trailing Dewey by significant margins, honed his strategy aware that the Republican-controlled Congress' failure to pass anything during the two-week special session provided him an opening. Writing years later, he recalled his determination to ignore Thurmond and Wallace, stick to the mainstream, and concentrate his fire on Dewey and the "Do-Nothing 80th Congress." "While I knew that the southern dissenters and the Wallace-ites would cost some Democratic votes, my opponent was the Republican Party. The campaign was built on one issue - the interests of the people, as represented by the Democrats against the special interests, as represented by the Republicans and the record of the Eightieth Congress. I staked the race for the presidency on that one issue."

What followed became political legend and remains a maxim to this day for both frontrunners and underdogs that elections are never over until the last vote is counted.

Assured by every public opinion poll that the election was but a formality and victory was already in the bag, Governor Dewey tried to sit on his lead. He preached national unity and campaigned in a less than vigorous manner. His overriding goal was not to alienate voters who were already displeased with Truman. Accordingly, his defense of the 80th Congress was almost nonexistent and he spoke only in platitudes.

In stark contrast, President Truman hit the road, waging a whistle stop campaign to appeal to the people and solidify the votes of wavering elements of the Roosevelt Coalition. Travelling by train throughout the country, he spoke wherever people would gather to listen. As he railed against the Republican Congress, derided his opponent as "the little man on the top of a wedding cake," and reminded voters of what the Democratic Party had done for them since the dark days of the Great Depression, he began making headway. The crowds kept getting larger and larger. To cries of "Give 'Em Hell Harry," he fought for his political life. All in all he traveled more than 31,000 miles and gave well over three hundred speeches in a period of thirty-five days. At each stop, he lashed out - "When I called them (Congress) back into session what did they do? Nothing. Nothing. That Congress never did anything the whole time it was in session." Republicans, he alleged, were "predatory animals who don't care if you people are thrown into a depression." He appealed to minority racial and religious groups in the urban northeast but ignored the civil rights issue in his trips into Dixie. Special attention was paid to organized labor throughout the country. Speaking on Labor Day to automobile workers at Cadillac Square in Detroit, Truman thundered:

As you know, I speak plainly sometimes. In fact, I speak bluntly sometimes. I am going to speak plainly and bluntly today. These are critical times for labor and for all who work. There is great danger ahead. Right now, the whole future of labor is wrapped up in one single proposition. If, in this next election, you get a Congress and an administration friendly to labor, you have much to hope for. If you get an administration, and a Congress unfriendly to labor, you have much to fear, and you had better look out…

If the Congressional elements that made the Taft-Hartley Law are allowed to remain in power, and if these elements are further encouraged by the election of a Republican President, you men of labor can expect to be hit by a steady barrage of body blows. And, if you stay at home, as you did in 1946, and keep these reactionaries in power, you will deserve every blow you get….
Each constituency of the Roosevelt Coalition heard how important it was to return Democrats to office - local, state, and national; executive, legislative, and judicial. While the crowds continued to grow, the pollsters continued to predict a sweeping Dewey victory. Even Truman's advisors and family held out little hope. Speaking to insider Clark Clifford just days before the election, the president's wife expressed her concern. "What shall we do for poor Harry, he actually thinks he's going to win." Indeed he did. After wrapping up the campaign with a nationwide radio address, Truman took a bath, went upstairs to his room before seven o'clock, ate a ham sandwich, drank a glass of milk, and went to sleep. Waking early the next morning, he learned he was over 2,000,000 votes ahead of Dewey and that Democratic candidates across the country were leading their opponents. By eleven o'clock that morning he was handed Governor Dewey's telegram congratulating him on his victory.

map.jpg (90237 bytes)Truman had, in fact, defeated Dewey by nearly three million popular votes - each one hard won on the campaign trail. As the president had suspected, most of the dissidents within his party had returned to the fold on Election Day. While the major candidates split 46 million votes between them, Thurmond and Wallace garnered slightly over a million apiece. Thurmond had carried only those four states where he had been listed on the ballot as the Democratic nominee - South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Wallace carried not a single state but may have cost the president New York. Victory in the Electoral College was assured; Truman received 303, Dewey 189, and Thurmond 39.

Nor was victory Truman's alone. In fact, one could argue that in many areas of the country he benefited from a "reverse coattails" phenomenon. The coattail effect refers to a popular presidential candidate's ability to sweep other candidates of his party into office. In this case, the opposite appears to have occurred. While the president carried most traditionally Democratic states, his vote totals and margins of victory were less than other party candidates. Truman, in a sense, clutched the coattails of congressional, gubernatorial, and state candidates of his own party and benefited from their strength at the ballot box. Democrats had reason to rejoice after all the votes had been counted. Party candidates had regained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the nation's capitol, picking up seventy-five seats in the lower chamber and a total of nine in the upper body. Gubernatorial candidates were successful as well, winning twenty of the thirty-two contested races.

Conclusion and Meaning

All the experts had gotten it wrong - dead wrong. In a state of shock and embarrassment, pollsters and prognosticators searched in the aftermath for answers. Within days, the Gallup organization stated that its fatal mistake had been in halting polling operations ten days before the election. So confident were they in a Dewey victory, they overlooked the possibility that millions of "undecided" voters would swing overwhelmingly to the combative incumbent at the last possible moment. George Gallup vowed that the mistake would never happen again.

There was in fact a monumental and last minute shift to Truman by voters who had identified themselves as "undecided" until the very last. Such a shift, however, should not have been surprising given a number of factors. The president had campaigned with all the vigor he could muster while Governor Dewey forgot to make his and the Republican Party's case to the American voter. Truman pursued those voters, asked for their support, and gave Democrats a reason to vote while Dewey and many Republicans waited confidently for inauguration day. There was both the "reverse coattails" phenomenon and Truman's decision to keep to the political mainstream, trusting that realists to both his right and left would abandon the folly of minor party candidates when casting their ballots. Most importantly, enough of the Roosevelt Coalition remained loyal when it counted. Truman suffered a setback in deepest Dixie, but carried the other core elements of the coalition, racking up the votes of organized labor, religious and ethnic minorities, the majority of moderates and liberals, academia, etc.

The election of 1948 marked a turning point in American politics. While victorious at the ballot box, the next four years would not be kind to Harry Truman. His days would be spent fighting unsuccessfully against a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans to make his Fair Deal legislative reality. Scandals drove down his approval rating to all-time lows. Republican conservatives seized upon the "loss of China" to the socialist world, the attack upon South Korea by communists which resulted in a protract and unpopular war, and the issue of internal security gone awry to pummel Democrats over the next four years. Nonetheless, Truman would triumph in the end. His domestic and foreign policy initiatives dominated the American agenda for the next half-century. Issues such as national health care, social security, and civil rights remain as pivotal to the nation's future at the beginning of the twenty-first century as in 1948. While vilified by critics at the time, historians today recognize that the irascible Missourian met monumental challenges with fortitude and success under the most trying of circumstances. The most recent comparisons of presidential performance rate Truman in the "near great" category.

The Democratic Party's solid southern base would, however, never be the same. While tensions had existed for decades between the various wings of the party, it had always recovered. In the largest sense, there was no recovery from 1948. While only four states had abandoned the party of Jackson, Cleveland, Wilson, and Roosevelt that year, defection became less and less unthinkable with each election cycle. When President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, engineered congressional passage of sweeping civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s the transition could no longer be forestalled. Southerners now perceived the Republican Party, so long discredited in Dixie because of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, as the party of conservatives and whites. Feeling abandoned by their party, voters began flocking in ever-larger numbers to the Republican standard. Regional realignment became an accomplished fact. The "solid south" still exists but, unlike 1948, it today belongs to the Grand Old Party.

(c) L. Patrick Hughes, 2000

Appendix # 1

It seems to me that the Democratic Party needs to make definite pledges of the kind suggested in the minority report, to maintain the trust and confidence placed in it by the people of all races and all sections of this country. Sure, we are here as Democrats, but, my good friends, we are here as Americans; we are here as the believers in the principles and the ideology of democracy, and I firmly believe that as men concerned with our country's future, we must specify in our platform the guarantees which we have mentioned in the minority plank.

Yes, this is far more than a party matter. Every citizen in this country has a stake in the emergence of the United States as a leader in the free world. That world is being challenged by the world of slavery. For us to play our part effectively, we must be in a morally sound position.

We cannot use a double standard. There is no room for double standards in American politics. For measuring our own and other people's politics, our demands for democratic practices in other lands will be no more effective than the guarantees of those practiced in our own country.

We are God-fearing men and women. We place our faith in the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God.

Friends, delegates, I do not believe that there can be any compromise of the guarantees of civil rights which we have mentioned in the minority report. In spite of my desire for unanimous agreement on the entire platform, in spite of my desire to see everybody here in unanimous agreement, there are some matters which I think must be stated clearly and without qualification. There can be no hedging - no watering down. The newspaper headlines are wrong.

There will be no hedging, and there will be no watering down, if you please, of the instruments and the principles of the civil rights program.

My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say we are 172 years too late!

To those who say that this civil rights program is an infringement on states' rights, I say this, that the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadows of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.

People, human beings, this is the issue of the Twentieth Century, people of all kinds, and these people are looking to America for leadership and they are looking to America for precepts and examples.

My good friends and my fellow Democrats, I ask you for a calm consideration of our historic opportunity. Let us forget the evil patience and the blindness of the past. In these times of world economic, political and spiritual -above all, spiritual - crisis we cannot, and we must not, turn from the paths so plainly before us.

That path has already led us through many valleys of the shadow of death, and now is the time to recall those who were left on that path of American freedom.

To all of us here, for the millions who has sent us, for the whole two billion members of the human family - our land is now, more than ever, the last best hope on earth. I know that we can, I know that we shall begin here the fuller and richer example of that - that promise of a land where all men are free and equal, and each man uses his freedom and equality wisely and well.

My good friends, I ask my Party, and I ask the Democratic Party to march down the high road of progressive democracy. I ask this convention to say in unmistakable terms that we proudly hail and we courageously support our President and leader, Harry Truman, in his great fight for civil rights in America.

Appendix #2  Gallup Poll Test Heats