On chickens . . . and counting them | Arkansas Blog

On chickens . . . and counting them


Tyrone Gosnell, the Hempwallace NWA correspondent, admits to a bit of uneasiness over the predictions that we Democrats have this election in the bag. He sends along this chilling little essay on political overconfidence:

It was on this day in 1948 that Harry S. Truman accomplished one of the greatest upsets in an American election by beating the governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey, for the presidency.

Truman had been serving as vice president when Franklin Roosevelt died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945. Truman took office that day, and over the next three years he helped arrange Germany's unconditional surrender, defeated Japan by ordering the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and began implementing the Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of Europe.

Despite all that, Truman was not all that popular. Republicans had retaken control of the Congress in the midterm elections in 1946, and there was a sense in the country that the New Deal was dead. The Democrats even considered nominating someone else for president. Some liberal Democrats threw their support to Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate. Conservative Democrats in the South also formed their own party, the Dixiecrats, in opposition to the Democrats' stance on civil rights.

Two months before the election, the pollster Elmo Roper announced that he was going to stop surveying voters, because Dewey was so far ahead. He said, "I've decided to devote my time and efforts to other things." The most recent poll had shown Dewey leading Truman by 44 to 31 percent. But Truman set out on one of the most ambitious campaigns in American history. He had a private railroad car outfitted for a cross-country journey that became known as the "whistle-stop tour." He would pull into a train station in a small town and give a speech directly from the train, which was equipped with a sound system. That fall of 1948, he covered 21,928 miles, and he managed to deliver more than 300 speeches around the country.

Thomas E. Dewey had decided that the best course of action was to say little and just maintain his lead in the polls. But Truman went on the attack.

About 5,000 to 10,000 people showed up at every stop. Journalists believed these people were just curious, but Truman believed they were really listening to him. All the major newspapers in the country still predicted his defeat, but Truman privately estimated that he would win about 340 electoral votes, and Dewey would get about 108.

On Election Day, he went to bed early, after a ham sandwich and a glass of milk. He woke up around midnight and turned on the radio. They were reporting that he was ahead in the popular vote by more than 1 million, but the announcer said that he was still undoubtedly beaten. It turned out that Truman had won 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189. Of the popular vote, he won 24 million to Dewey's 22 million. Not one news organization in the country had predicted the election correctly.

It was two days after the election that Truman was making an appearance in St. Louis and somebody handed him a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune that had run the day before with the headline, "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN." Truman held the paper up over his head for the photographers in attendance, and that picture became the most famous picture of Truman ever taken.

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