1948 Election


As for Dewey, he reacted with a grace and humor that would have benefited him during the campaign. On the day after the election, he told the press: “I am as much surprised as you are. I have read your stories. We were all wrong together.” Later, Dewey was to say wryly that he felt like the man who woke up in a coffin with a lily in his hand and wondered: “If I am alive, what am I doing here? And if I’m dead, why do I have to go to the bathroom?”

Meanwhile, the rest of the nation was pondering a riddle just as perplexing. How had Truman managed to win? Or, as Republicans put it, how had Dewey managed to lose?

There are a number of possible answers. Truman’s impassioned appeals to the labor and farm vote certainly played a major part in his victory. So did the natural appeal of the underdog and Truman’s emergence during the campaign as a vigorous personality in his own right. The Wallace and Thurmond candidacies probably helped the President nearly as much as they hurt him, the former by drawing the fire of zealous anti-Communists and the latter by lending credibility to Truman’s civil-rights programs.

Perhaps the most important single factor in Truman’s victory was simply that he was President. Because he was President, he was able to make a nationwide “nonpolitical” campaign trip free of charge, to summon Congress into special session, and, in general, to command the attention and loyalty of the nation.

But what about Dewey? With the aid of hindsight, the commentators quickly pointed out where the Republican candidate had gone wrong. Had Dewey waged a more aggressive campaign, it was contended, the result would have been different. Indeed, it might have. But Dewey had based his strategy on the commonly accepted assumption that his victory was inevitable—a decision which, under the circumstances, had ample precedent in American politics. The underlying basis for this assumption was, of course, the unanimous verdict of the opinion polls.

The pollsters suffered more from the election results than anyone else, perhaps even more than the Republican party. But their humiliation offers probably the most enduring and encouraging lesson to be learned from the great upset of 1948: the folly of taking the American electorate for granted.

To find out why the pollsters had been so far off in their calculations, the Social Science Research Council appointed a committee of prominent educators to conduct a five-week investigation. Boiled down, the panel’s 396-page verdict faulted the pollsters for neglecting to analyze the eventual decisions of undecided voters carefully enough, and for virtually ignoring shifts in sentiment at the end of the campaign. Finally, in presenting their results to the public, “the pollsters went far beyond the bounds of sound reporting.… They attempted the spectacular feat of predicting the winner without qualifications.” In other words, as Elmo Roper said, he and his colleagues had been “honest, but dumb.” Such predictions, the committee also charged, were not justified by the pollsters’ past records. To be sure, they had all correctly picked Franklin Roosevelt to win the preceding three elections. But the average of their findings had consistently underestimated the Democratic vote. They had been spared embarrassment in the past only because Roosevelt had always won by a substantial margin.

A few days before the 1948 election, Democratic Chairman McGrath had reminded pollsters Crossley and Gallup of their past miscalculations and asked that they adjust their 1948 findings accordingly. Crossley said he found McGrath’s objections “interesting” and expressed the hope that “we can sometime discuss these matters fully.” Gallup was not nearly so polite. In just three words he unwittingly laid down a maxim that anyone trying to forecast an American election might well keep in mind.

What Gallup said was: “Wait till Tuesday!”