The Also-rans

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Besides Truman’s stunning upset, 1 the 1948 race is remembered for having two serious minor-party candidates, Strom Thurmond of the States’ Rights Democrats and Henry Wallace of the Progressives. Thurmond, campaigning almost exclusively in the South (though he did receive 7 popular votes in New Hampshire and 374 in North Dakota), appealed to white Southerners’ resentment of Truman’s and the Democrats’ civil rights measures. Wallace, while endorsing a broad spectrum of liberal and leftist causes, most strongly advocated a softer line toward the Soviet Union.

Each candidate hoped to deny Truman victory, and obviously neither one succeeded. The twin failures eliminated both parties as major factors in presidential politics. Yet they did better than their quick fade into oblivion suggests. Wallace attracted more than 500,000 votes in New York, a state that Truman lost by only about 60,000. Had Dewey won the Presidency in a narrow race, New York’s 47 electoral votes could easily have been the key. And Dewey came closer to winning than is indicated by his shortfall in electoral votes (303 to 189, with 39 for Thurmond) and popular votes (24.1 million to 22.0 million, with Thurmond and Wallace drawing a little more than a million each).

The Democratic margin in three large states—California, Illinois, and Ohio—was less than 1 percent. Had Dewey won all three of these states, he would have had a bare majority in the Electoral College. Had he won two of them, the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives, which was exactly what Thurmond was hoping for. As it was, Truman won, and supporters of both fringe groups decided to pursue their causes within the regular Democratic party. In years since, they have been so successful that the last three Democratic Presidents have all been Southerners with liberal views, especially on civil rights—in essence, a cross between Thurmond and Wallace with the extremism removed.