Truman vs Dewey: The Election of 1948

Truman vs Dewey: The Election of 1948
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  • 0:01 Background Information
  • 1:20 Campaign Highlights
  • 2:45 The Results
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rita Kerrigan

Rita has taught elementary and middle school and has a master's degree in reading education.

The 1948 election between incumbent Democratic President Harry S. Truman and Republican Thomas E. Dewey is considered the greatest election upset in American history by most historians.

Background Information

The 41st presidential election made history for some very interesting reasons. Incumbent Harry S. Truman upset Thomas E. Dewey, which was not the result that was expected. Almost every prediction leading up to this election gave indications that Dewey would defeat Truman. A major newspaper even went so far as to print and distribute headlines announcing Dewey as the winner before it was apparent that he had actually lost to Truman!

This huge blunder is what makes the election of 1948 most memorable, but it was also important for a few other reasons. It was the fifth consecutive win for the Democratic Party, one of the two major political parties in the United States dating back to the split of the Democratic-Republican Party in 1828, which made it the longest winning streak in the party's history. In addition to a democratic presidential victory, the Senate and House of Representatives also had Democratic majorities after the election. Finally, the campaign tactics of Dewey and Truman were significantly different from each other - one going full force into his campaign, and the other sitting back and letting the campaign quietly pass.

Campaign Highlights

Truman and Dewey had very different approaches to campaigning. In an effort to avoid major mistakes, Dewey didn't assert himself or share innovative ideas for his presidency. Instead, his speeches were extremely vague in his promises to the nation and avoided any sort of controversy. Truman, on the other hand, traveled around the country via train on his 'Whistle Stop' campaign, delivering speeches to huge crowds. His high energy campaigning got the attention of people and acquired him the slogan 'Give 'Em Hell, Harry,' which slowly gained him more and more support as the campaign progressed.

Although he gained popularity during his campaign, it was still thought that Dewey would beat him easily. In fact, many newspapers and magazines were so confident that Dewey would win, that they preemptively wrote articles during the campaign's final days to be printed the morning after the election about Dewey as president. In fact, Newsweek polled 50 key political journalists while Truman was on the road campaigning as to who they thought would win. The results? All 50 thought that Dewey would win!

The Results

On the evening of November 2, 1948, a printers' strike caused the Chicago Tribune to go to press before results were reported from polls on the east coast. Polling experts and analysts still predicted that Dewey would most definitely be the winner. Therefore, the first edition of the Tribune was printed with the huge headline 'DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.'

This story was written by correspondent Arthur Sears Henning, a longtime political analyst who had a solid track record in past elections - he had correctly predicted the winner in four out of five contests in 20 years. His famously incorrect article also stated that the Senate and House of Representatives would be controlled by Republicans. He based his information on Truman winning many of the western and southern states, and predicted that Dewey would continue to gain states' electoral votes and win by a huge majority.

As the night continued, it began to appear that the race was much closer than anticipated. The story was rewritten to report how close the race was turning out to be, but the main headline, 'DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN,' embarrassingly remained on the front page. It was late in the evening that the Tribune finally changed the headline for the later edition of the paper to 'DEMOCRATS MAKE SWEEP OF STATE OFFICES.' However, around 150,000 copies of the paper had already been printed and many had been distributed before the Tribune made the change!

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