History In The Headlines

The Truman-Dewey Election, 65 Years Ago

By Elizabeth Nix
On November 3, 1948, the day after the U.S. presidential election, the front-page headline of the Chicago Tribune proclaimed: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” In fact, the newspaper got the story all wrong, because President Harry Truman ended up scoring a surprise victory over his opponent, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York. Now, on the 65th anniversary of one of the greatest upsets in American political history, find out how Truman managed to win the election that no one--except for Truman himself--thought he could pull off.
Harry Truman, Dewey Defeats Truman

President Harry Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune declaring his defeat to Thomas Dewey. (Credit: Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Heading into Election Day on November 2, 1948, numerous polls and pundits predicted Thomas Dewey (1902-71) was a shoo-in for the presidency. A Michigan native and attorney who gained prominence in the 1930s by prosecuting such mobsters as Lucky Luciano, Dewey had served as the 47th governor of New York since 1943. In 1944, he won the Republican nomination for the White House but lost the general election to President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1948, the Republicans again chose Dewey as their presidential nominee, with Governor Earl Warren of California as his vice-presidential running mate.

The Democratic nominee, Harry Truman (1884-1972), had ascended to the presidency following Franklin Roosevelt’s sudden death on April 12, 1945, just three months after he’d been sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term. The plain-spoken Truman, a U.S. senator from Missouri before his brief vice-presidency, went on to lead the United States through the end of World War II and the transition to a peacetime economy. However, in 1946, Truman’s political reputation was damaged when issues such as rising inflation and labor unrest contributed to the Democrats losing control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 14 years. Further diminishing Truman’s prospects as the 1948 election approached were divisions within his own political party. His civil rights initiatives had alienated the conservative, Southern wing of the organization, whose members left to form the States’ Rights Democratic Party (or Dixiecrats) and select Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as their presidential nominee. Additionally, Truman’s onetime secretary of commerce (as well as Roosevelt’s vice president from 1941-45), Henry Wallace, who had a following among liberals, decided to run against his former boss as the Progressive Party’s candidate for the Oval Office.

With victory looking like a foregone conclusion for Dewey, the New York governor ran an uninspiring, risk-averse campaign. One newspaper contended his four major speeches could be reduced to four sentences: “Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. The future lies ahead.” Meanwhile, Truman employed an aggressive, populist campaign style. The president embarked on a “whistle-stop” tour, traveling across America by train and giving numerous speeches in which he spoke out against the “do-nothing” Republican-controlled 80th Congress. “Give ‘em hell, Harry” became a popular slogan among his supporters.

On Election Day, thanks to a coalition of voters that included organized labor, farmers, African Americans and Jews, Truman and his running mate, Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky, pulled off what became known as one of the biggest upsets in U.S. political history, racking up 303 electoral votes and 49.6 percent of the popular vote to Dewey’s 189 electoral votes and 45.1 percent of the popular vote. Thurmond, the Dixiecrat, earned 39 electoral votes and 2.4 percent of the popular vote.

A now-famous photograph taken two days after the president’s come-from-behind triumph shows him smiling and holding a copy of the November 3, 1948, edition of the Chicago Tribune featuring the erroneous banner headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” On Election Day, the newspaper had been required to go to press earlier than usual due to a printers’ strike, and even though not all the votes had been tallied at the time of the Tribune’s deadline, its editors were confident in the multiple polls widely favoring Dewey to win, and therefore reported he had done just that. (The Tribune wasn’t the only one to mistakenly call the election for the New York governor; in covering the returns, a leading radio announcer, H.V. Kaltenborn, informed his listeners that even though Truman was ahead Dewey ultimately would wind up on top.)

On January 29, 1949, in America’s first nationally televised inauguration, Truman was sworn in to his first full term as America’s 33rd president. Four years later, he left the White House (he had been eligible to seek another term but announced in 1952 he would not do so) and retired to his hometown of Independence, Missouri. Meanwhile, Dewey served as governor of New York through 1954 then he returned to practicing law. He died in 1971 at age 68. Truman died the following year at age 88.

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Categories: Elections, Harry Truman