Truman and Trump: Explaining the Unexpected Winner

The nation is still stunned by Donald Trump’s successful run for the presidency.

Only a few weeks ago, the predictors were giving Hillary Clinton a healthy margin of victory. The New York Times put her chances of winning at 85 percent. There was talk of a Democratic landslide. Pundits wrote that the Republican Party was finished, split between irreconcilable factions: conservative and extra-conservative.

Only in the last few days before the election was there any talk that Trump’s defeat wasn’t assured. Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight, a respected website that statistically analyzes politics, economics, and sports, suddenly reversed his predictions to give Trump a 35% chance of winning. He was criticized for changing his data points to where he thought they should be.

It turns out he was right, but he was quite alone. The media generally dismissed Trump’s chances, believing that only Americans on the political fringes would take him seriously. Now comes the second-guessing. Reporters are now revisiting what the media got wrong. Esme Murphy, of CBS affiliate WCCO in Minneapolis, believes that journalists and politicians underestimated Trump’s support from rural, white voters, both male and female. Another factor was resentment against the Affordable Care Act and its rising premiums. The persistent media coverage of Clinton’s emails counted heavily against her. And finally, Trump was able to stir his audiences.

The situation is reminiscent of the presidential election of 1948, when Democrat Harry Truman defeated Republican Thomas Dewey, contrary to the expectations of the media.

Well before voting began, major columnists were convinced Dewey had already won the contest. Newspapers and magazines had printed their “Dewey Defeats Truman” stories before the election was decided.

Then, on November 3, 1948, America was shocked by the news that Truman had, in fact, won. Political analyst Samuel Lubell promptly set out across the country to talk to voters and GOP officials, hoping to understand what happened.

In his Post article, “Who Really Elected Truman?” from January of 1949, he spelled out the reason for the unexpected Democratic victory in 15 cities. There are several parallels to this week’s election upset, including tightly aligned voting blocs that showed up in force (urban voters for Truman; rural for Trump), apathetic or undecided stay-at-home voters, a stronger-than-expected showing in the Midwest, and, for both Truman and Trump, a “fighting, folksy tone.”

Who Really Elected Truman?

By Samuel Lubell

Excerpted from an article 0riginally published Jan. 22, 1949

When President Truman is sworn into office this week, the American people will be witnessing the inauguration of a political revolution.

Who elected him? What caused this “greatest upset in American history”? Since that November morning when Tom Dewey conceded that Harry Truman had defeated him, experts have been unusually busy proving how tiny a switch of voters — a mere 100,000 in selected states — would have sent Dewey to the White House. Such calculations, I believe, conceal the decisive nature of Truman’s triumph, which crumbled what remained of the post–Civil War political lineup and relegated the Republicans to the minority status long held by the Democrats. Henceforth political dopesters must think of the United States as “normally Democratic” or have their predictions boomerang.

Probably no previous election was influenced by so many crosscurrents. Yet the pattern of Truman’s victory emerges clear and unmistakable. First, Truman won because the urban masses, who elected Roosevelt for four terms, held together as a political force. The evidence that Dewey failed to crack any major groups of F.D.R.’s ardent following is ample. GOP victories in the industrial East were won less through new Republican adherents than by the apathy which kept much of the Roosevelt vote from the polls. Far from costing Dewey the election, the stay-at-homes may have saved him from almost as crushing a defeat as Landon suffered in 1936.

The winner with General Clark and Chief Justice Vinson. “The pattern of Truman’s victory,” the author states, “emerges clear and unmistakable.” (Harris and Ewing)

The second element in Truman’s victory was a belated catching on of the Roosevelt revolution on farms and in small towns. Much has been written of the farmer’s ire over the reduction of storage capacity to support corn prices. Of greater significance is the fact that the swing in the Midwest was most pronounced among voters of German descent who, apparently, had been held in the Republican Party through dislike of Roosevelt’s foreign policy. In my opinion, it will rank as one of the great ironies of American history that Roosevelt, in his very act of dying, removed the roadblock to a successful assault upon the staunchest Republican citadels.

Whether victory might have gone to Dewey had he slugged it out, issue for issue, will be debated endlessly. This much is clear: Dewey’s “high-level” talks on “unity” bear no relation to the way the vote broke. In contrast, Truman’s efforts seem tailored to the returns and constitute quite a tribute to Democratic Chairman J. Howard McGrath, to whom Truman owes more than Roosevelt did to Farley. In Roosevelt, the “common people” saw their benefactor. Truman hit just the right pitch in the matter of issues. He had fighting, folksy tones to appeal to the Roosevelt elements — labor, unorganized as well as organized; the foreign-born and their first- and second-generation offspring; also Negroes and Catholics. Helping him was something Dewey sorely lacked — enemies to dramatize his political convictions. Although Henry Wallace cost the Democrats New York and Maryland, he appears to have helped elect Truman. So do the Dixiecrats.

The election has been dismissed as a vote for prevailing prosperity — that plus popular anger against high living costs, inadequate housing, and the Taft-Hartley Law. With the Democrats controlling Congress and the presidency, Republicans now take comfort in the belief that they will profit from the voters’ wrath in 1952. But the 1948 vote resulted from factors which have been remaking our political life for at least a generation — birth rates, economic status, racial groups, the rise of government as an employer, the development of a new middle class with underdog memories. In terms of these forces, the Republicans appear, to me, weaker today than during Roosevelt’s dazzling victories.

Each city offered a different explanation for voting for Truman.


“Dewey by 60,000” was the forecast for Massachusetts. But Truman’s astonishing plurality topped 240,000, for a larger popular vote than Roosevelt ever got. Why?

Clumsily, the Republican state legislature put on the ballot proposals to legalize birth control and to crack down on trade unions. No two issues could have more effectively aroused the Democratic vote, concentrated among working-class elements of Irish, Italian, French-Canadian, and Polish descent, all predominantly Catholic. One observer told me, “The church did a job on the women, while the unions got out the men.”


With anti-Roosevelt feeling no longer a factor in 1948, farmers found it easier to vote their economic interests. … The greatest Truman swing came in Western Wisconsin, rolling dairy country which raises no price-support crops. Eastern Wisconsin, which does, held for Dewey. What the western counties do share is having suffered greater privations during the depression — twice as many farms were foreclosed — than Eastern Wisconsin.


Throughout the Farm Belt, it seemed, farmers were seeking down-to-earth promises which they didn’t find in Dewey’s speeches. The pre-election drop in farm prices had the psychological effect of making them fear they were going to lose all their gains. These fears were stimulated when Congress reduced the storage capacity available for supporting corn loans.


Steady employment undoubtedly has contributed to [workers’ satisfaction with the Democrats]. On nearby streets, every fourth or fifth house is freshly painted. The grocery which handled food stamps in 1940 gleams with fluorescent lighting. Many union members are property owners.


Negro voters are no longer swayed by the naming of a few colored persons to well-paying jobs. … the Republicans have no labor program to attract the 1,000,000 Negro workers, now unionized. They frown on public housing, which to Negroes promises relief from both squalor and segregation.


The younger people voted for Truman. The Dewey ballots were invariably among older folk. Typical of the reasons given by Truman supporters were, “We were high-school kids during the depression, but remember how tough it was,” or “It seemed the safest thing to do.”


The depression first split the allegiance of the middle class — three banks in [one] neighborhood failed. Few “lost Republicans” have been won back. One woman, who drove 60-odd miles to vote for Hoover in 1928, felt that Truman was “one of the people,” while Dewey was “It’s all been said before.”


The great Republican mistake, I believe, was to assume there was a “natural pendulum swing” which had won them control of Congress in 1946 and which would carry them the rest of the way into the White House.

From his national canvass, Lubell saw a new appreciation of the Democrats and a dismissal of the Republicans that the pollsters and politicians missed. And as this year’s election shows, it wasn’t the last time the experts overlooked critical signs of change.

Overall, I found that in city after city through the Roosevelt years, the former “minorities” became the new majority. This indicates what has become of the GOP pendulum. That pendulum reflected the normally Republican majority which evolved from the Civil War. With each successive election the proportion of the population to whom 1860 has any political meaning dwindles. The Republican problem becomes increasingly one of finding a new political vehicle of a design to attract new passengers.

From the Republican viewpoint, perhaps the harshest fact the 1948 returns reveal is how many ordinarily conservative persons feared a Republican victory. Is this because the processes of inflation, government infiltration, and global power politics have already gone so far that people feel our whole social structure rests upon government supports?

Whatever the reason, the doctrine of too little government seems to have become as frightening as that of too much government. Unless the Republicans can develop their own concept of the positive role that government is to play in American life, they will have to resign themselves, in the judgment of this reporter, to a minority status, with their best hope for victory lying in a Democratic equivalent of the Bull Moose split. Dewey, in fact, came close to becoming a minority president, as Wilson was in 1912.

Whether the Democrats can hold together is still the crucial question. Can they cement their new farmer allies with their older labor following?

You can speculate from now until 1952 on how the reshuffling of both major parties — now so clearly under way — will eventually come out. So far — and this is perhaps the crowning irony to this most paradoxical election — the Republicans seem to have suffered more from Roosevelt’s death than the Democrats. Roosevelt’s passing removed the common foe who united some Republican elements, while plenty of enemies for the Democrats to vote against survived.

Perhaps that is the moral of the 1948 election — that Americans like to elect their presidents on the basis of the enemies that they have made. Dewey’s fatal error may have been that he did not choose to run against anybody, especially.

Read Samuel Lubell's complete article, "Who Really Elected Truman?
Read Samuel Lubell’s complete article, “Who Really Elected Truman?”

Featured image: Harry S. Truman (Library of Congress) and Donald Trump (Library of Congress)