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1948 Truman-Dewey Election

Truman wins

The upset win of Harry Truman over Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 election came after leading publications had confidently predicted Dewey's victory (e.g. New York Times headine: “Thomas E. Dewey’s Election as President is a Foregone Conclusion.”; Life Magazine: cover with Dewey's picture and caption reading, “The Next President of the United States"). Even on election night, the media still had difficulty accepting the fact that Truman could win. (see above photo). Shortly before his inaguration at a dinner of the Presidential Electors Association, the President also gleefully parodied the radio reports of the prominent broadcaster H..V. Kaltenborn, who on election night commented that the President's apparent lead in the early returns would be unlikely to hold.

The Truman victory was also an embarrassment for the emerging public opinion polling community. Truman's 4.4 percentage point election margin contrasted with the pre-election polls predicting a Dewey victory ranging between 5 to 15 percentage points. After the election, analysts attributed the polls' failure largely to completing their surveys too early, thus missing a late swing in voter sentiment in favor of the President. Ironically, the polls themselves may have helped Truman's late surge to overcome Dewey when press reports of their surveys showing Dewey ahead energized the Democrats to mount late efforts to increase turnout, and made the Republicans over-confident of any need to get their own voters to the polls. George Gallup, founder of the firm bearing his name, was forced according to his son, " visit many newspaper clients after the election to lure them back after 30 canceled their poll service." Gallup's competitor, Elmo Roper, also faced potential ruin from the mistake. Reflecting years later, Roper's son said that he and his father, both Democrats, had decidedly mixed emotions: "We saw our man winning, but our company going down the tubes." See "Pollsters recall 1948 fiasco",

The election also was marked by Truman's withstanding splits in the Democratic Party over civil rights and the Administration's policy directed at containing Communism. After Truman supported passage of stronger civil rights legislation, the entire Mississippi and half of the Alabama delegates walked out of the Democratic National Convention, and the disaffected southerners then nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond to run on the States Rights' Democratic Party, or so-called "Dixiecrat" ticket. Another split was led by more liberal Democrats, who objected to the President's confrontational policies toward Communism and organized the Progressive Party, with its presidential choice Henry Wallace, a former vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet member for both Roosevelt and Truman until being asked to resign by Truman in 1946. Thurmond carried four states--Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina--with 39 electoral votes, but Wallace, despite nearly matching Thurmond's popular vote share with 2.4%, failed to win any electoral votes (see 1948 Electoral College).

Truman whistlestops
Another feature of Truman's 1948 race was his famed "whistle-stop" train campaign in which he gave speeches to crowds from the back of the special "Magellan" train chartered by the Democrats. In Boston, an estimated 20,000 people greeted him at the station, and in all the President traveled over 30,000 miles and made 201 stops on the "whistle-stop" route. In addition to allowing Truman a relatively efficient, economical way to get his message out, the use of the train also reinforced his popular image as a leader who avoided pretense and understood the problems of the average voter, a perception that ultimately won over voters when faced with the choice of the rather aloof and haughty Dewey. Truman's success with the "whistle-stop" campaign continues in contemporary political races, where candidates seek to replicate the Truman image of reaching out to the people, now often through marathon bus or walking tours


1948 Campaign >> Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

1948: The Great Truman Surprise, The Press and the Presidency >> Kennesaw State University

The 1948 Presidential Election >>

Educational Tools

1948 Campaign: Student Activities >> Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

The PBS Kids Democracy Project >>

Lesson Plan: Polls >>

Understanding Issues in Presidental Elections >>