1948 Fifty Years Ago

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On November 2 President Harry S. Truman was returned to office by the voters, defeating Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York in the greatest upset in the history of American presidential elections. The famous Chicago Tribune headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN , held triumphantly aloft by a gleeful Truman the morning after, is the most famous of the inaccurate predictions that preceded the election, but far from the only one. Virtually every publication and “expert” had taken a Dewey victory for granted.

In retrospect, observers attributed the surprising outcome to the two candidates’ campaign rhetoric. Truman had come out cutting and slashing from the start, decrying the “do nothing” Republican Eightieth Congress over and over in nearly every speech. Dewey, comfortable with his safe lead, apparently decided to imitate Calvin Coolidge—the only successful Republican President of his adult life —by saying nothing. He opted for warm, fuzzy addresses praising freedom, justice, and unity, rarely deigning even to mention Truman. The result was a stultifying blandness, something not usually seen in New York politicians. By going into the “prevent defense” too early, Dewey and the Republicans allowed a scrappy Democratic team to come from way behind.

That’s one way to look at it. Another way is that Dewey took the high road and Truman took the low road, and the result was what usually happens when those two approaches collide. Truman blamed all the country’s ills on the Republican-controlled Congress, skillfully deflecting suggestions that a Democratic President (and fourteen years of Democratic Congresses, against which the voters had rebelled so strongly in 1946) might have been involved in some fashion. He decried the “antilabor” Taft-Hartley Law, although he had invoked its terms seven times in a little more than a year.

Dewey took a more nuanced view: “I will not contend that all our difficulties today have been brought about by the present National Administration.” He learned to his dismay what becomes of nuanced views in American politics. Despite recent disclosures of Communists in the federal government, and polls showing the Soviet Union as voters’ greatest concern, Dewey refused suggestions that he engage in red baiting. Truman, meanwhile, asserted that “if anybody in this country is friendly to the Communists, it is the Republicans”—even as he did his best to stir up class warfare with talk of “the economic tapeworm of big business,” “bloodsuckers with offices in Wall Street, princes of privilege, plunderers.” For variety he also compared the Republican party to the Nazis.

Mudslinging aside, the 1948 election marked an epochal shift in American politics that no one suspected at the time: the end of New York State’s primacy in presidential politics. In twenty-one presidential elections after the end of the Civil War, a New Yorker had been on at least one majorparty ticket in twenty of them. (The lone exception had come in 1896.) In its heyday the Empire State was by far the nation’s largest, and since it was closely balanced between the two parties, anyone running for President had to pay attention to it.

In the twelve presidential elections since Dewey’s collapse, however, there have been only three New Yorkers on major-party tickets, all vice-presidential candidates and all losers (William E. Miller in 1964, Géraldine Ferraro in 1984, and Jack Kemp in 1996). Not since Robert Kennedy in 1968 has there even been a strong primary challenge from New York. The Empire State and the Republican party have grown apart through the years, and in every close election since Dewey, New York has gone Democratic. Along with the Sunbelt’s great population growth, these changes have combined to make New York almost an afterthought for modern-day presidential candidates.