Today in History: Truman Defeats Dewey

by Alex Caldwell

On Nov. 2, 1948, President Harry S. Truman defeated Republican Gov. Thomas Dewey and secured a full-term as president in one of the biggest election upsets in American history.

Vice President Harry S. Truman (right) was sworn in as president upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (left) in 1945.

President Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 shortly after winning a fourth term in office. Truman, who served as Roosevelt’s vice president for less than three months, was sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States upon his death. Under Truman, he notably dropped the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, signifying the end to the American-Japanese conflict during World War II, and he authored the Truman Doctrine in 1947 to combat the spread of communism. In 1948, Truman declared that he would seek a full term in office and begun his presidential campaign.

Despite Truman’s incumbency, along with the slew of difficult decisions that he had to endure, most political pundits believed that Truman would be trounced by New York Republican Gov. Thomas Dewey in the general election. Truman was often portrayed as an ineffective leader who was inconsistent with his foreign and domestic policies. Most of his domestic proposals were rejected by the Republican Congress, many felt that he was overly aggressive with the Soviet Union, and the Southern Democrats disliked his stance on civil rights. Gov. Strom Thurmond, D-S.C., broke off from the Democratic Party and created the States’ Rights, or “Dixiecrat,” faction of the party to combat Truman and Northern Democrats.

Truman was not favored to win the election. Dewey polled ahead of Truman by more than 13 points across the country, indicating a landslide victory for Republicans. Thurmond’s candidacy also meant that Truman would not get votes from the traditionally Democratic Southern States that he needed to win the election. However, the president campaigned across the country with a “whistle-stop” tour in order to connect with voters. He campaigned as a political outsider, citing his past role as a farmer, and attacked the “do-nothing” Congress.

President Truman holds up the Chicago Tribune’s “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” newspaper after winning the 1948 presidential race.

Despite Truman’s grassroots campaign, experts still declared that he would lose the election to Dewey. The Chicago Tribune had even published an early post-election article with the headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” across the front page.

On election night, Truman was ahead of Dewey with the early vote, but commentators continued to announce that Dewey would win as more votes came in. Early the following morning, Truman was ahead of Dewey by more than two million votes, though the media refused to call the race for the president. Hours later, Dewey sent a telegram to Truman conceding the race.

President Truman defeated Gov. Dewey and Gov. Thurmond, securing a full term as the 33rd President of the United States.

Truman defeated Dewey with 49.4 percent to 45 percent. He surpassed Dewey in the electoral college with 303 votes across 28 states to Dewey’s 189 votes across 16 states. Democrats also regained control of Congress as well. Strom Thurmond captured 2.4 percent of the popular vote, lower than predicted. He received 39 electoral college votes from four states.

Truman’s upset victory is not the only time that the media and political experts have prematurely called a presidential race for the wrong person.

In 2000, television networks projected that Al Gore would win Florida over George W. Bush, a state that would have made him president. However, Bush pulled ahead of Gore, and networks later rescinded their call before Bush won the state.

In 2016, nearly all pundits declared that Donald Trump had no path to victory over Hillary Clinton. Newsweek had even published a magazine with the headline “MADAM PRESIDENT” before the election. Ultimately, Trump defeated Clinton, defying nearly all pollsters’ and experts’ predictions.

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