The 1948 Presidential Election—Truman V. Dewey

by Reneé Critcher Lyons

Wooting and tooting its way back to Washington, D.C. from America’s heartland on November 3, 1948, newly re-elected President Harry S Truman’s campaign train screeched to a halt for a short public appearance in St. Louis. As a jubilant Truman waved and greeted citizens attending the impromptu gathering, a supporter handed him a copy of the daily Chicago Tribune. “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” blared from the front page! The president held the paper high, grinning from ear-to-ear while camera shutters snapped. He noted, “This is for the books.”

Yes, Harry S Truman, incumbent president from Independence, Missouri, son of a mule-trader turned farmer, had whipped the arrogant, press-courting governor from New York, Thomas E. Dewey. He won by over two million (that’s 2,000,000) votes, despite the fact that only 15 percent of the nation’s newspapers supported his campaign. Prior to the election, the Chicago Tribune referred to President Truman as a “nincompoop,” and The New York Times wrote, “The [Democratic] Party might as well immediately concede the election to Dewey and save the wear-and-tear of campaigning.” Magazines were just as bad. Time Magazine proclaimed, “Barring a political miracle, it was the kind of ticket that could not fail to sweep the Republican Party back into power.” Newsweek published election opinions from fifty highly respected political reporters; all fifty predicted Truman would lose. Life Magazine even ran a cover of Dewey with the caption “The Next President of the United States.” As for the topsy-turvy results reported by the Chicago Tribune, it became the most famous mistaken headline in our nation’s history!

The Washington Post tried to apologize, inviting the president to a banquet, saying the entire staff would wear sackcloth and ashes to “eat crow,” while the president, in white tie, would be served turkey. President Truman declined, stating, “We should all get together now and make a country in which everybody can eat turkey whenever they please.” The president, when asked about the fifty Newsweek election experts, said, “I know every one of those fifty fellows. Not one of them has enough sense to pound sand in a rat hole.” The Tribune did not apologize until after President Truman’s death, at the paper’s 125th anniversary. It turned out the paper had relied on a Washington correspondent to project the winner of the race instead of waiting for the election returns. Nonetheless, when proved incorrect, the Tribune blamed the pollsters instead of the correspondent.

All three major pollsters—Gallup, Roper, and Crosley—throughout the election, predicted Dewey would win by a landslide. (Perhaps the newspapers trusted the Gallup poll because it predicted the 1934 election within 1 percent, as well as the 1936 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt). The Roper poll even stopped surveys in September, so confident were they of Dewey’s victory. Columnist Marquis Childs wrote, “We were wrong, all of us, completely and entirely, the commentators, the political editors, the politicians—except for Harry S Truman…”

No one except Truman himself, and his own pollster, Lester Biffle, Secretary of the Senate, who disguised himself as a chicken peddler and conducted his own poll that showed “the common people” were for Truman, understood the power of the average American citizen to make up his or her own mind. Truman knew: “The people are with us. The tide is rolling. All over the country. I have seen it in the people’s faces. The people are going to win this election.”

Truman saw it in the faces of Americans as he traversed the country on train, “engineering” the most stunning upset victory in presidential election history. His campaign visits became known as “whistle-stops.” The press down-played these visits, which drew thousands of onlookers per stop. They failed to place pictures of the events in the papers, reporting the people were not interested in voting for the president, only catching a glimpse of him. Despite this deliberate shunning, Truman carried his message to the people with integrity. He turned down potential campaign contributors who wished to sail aboard the presidential yacht, the Williamsburg, in exchange for a contribution. Dewey, on the other hand, took ninety reporters aboard his yacht, “Victory Special,” paying port hotel bills, and even laundry expenses, in exchange for positive reporting! According to Truman, he traveled 31,700 miles and made 352 speeches, even more “off the books.” At the Dexter, Iowa “whistle-stop,” Truman addressed 96,000 farmers attending the National Plowing Contest, noting “This Republican do-nothing Congress has already stuck a pitch fork in the farmers’ back. Vote for your farms!” He held the first integrated rally in the state of Texas, stopping by an orphanage in Dallas, for he understood “the loneliness of childhood.” He talked “square” with the American people, away from the “powder and paint” of the media, relying only on “the facts.”

On election eve, Truman thanked the American people “from the bottom of my heart” for “their interest in the affairs of this great nation and the world. I trust the people, because when they know the facts, they do the right thing.” This trust in the public allowed a farmer’s son turned president to vote with his wife and daughter on election day, enjoy an afternoon with friends, and without worry go to bed early after eating a ham sandwich and drinking a glass of milk. At midnight, the Secret Service woke the president and told him he was 1.2 million votes ahead, but still expected to lose. At 4:00 a.m. the president was awakened again and told of his two million vote lead. NBC broadcaster H.V. Kaltenborn still forecasted a defeat over the radio.

President Harry S Truman placed his trust in the American people, not the American media. He trusted the American people to seek facts, not the sensational stories found in the newspapers, magazines, and TV, many such stories instigated by Dewey himself. Truman’s trust inspired him to reach out to the common voter, shake his or her hand, and speak the plain truth. As Richard Strout wrote in the New Republic, the Truman victory “gave a glowing and wonderful sense that the American people can’t be tricked by polls, know their own mind, and picked the rather unlikely but courageous figure of Truman to carry on their banner.”

Read More

  • Learn how music heals all wounds, and how President Truman’s piano initiated a restoration of the White House, in “A Perfect Image” by Linda Sue Park, found in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Also, be sure to look at Stéphanie Jorisch’s coordinating illustration highlighting Truman’s musical talent.
  • Read about the note Maniac Magee author Jerry Spinelli delivered (almost) to President Truman in “A Note for the President,” found in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Terry Widener’s accompanying illustration features a courageous young Spinelli.
  • Almost heeeeaaaarrr specters speaking from the page, and discover President Truman’s opinion about White House hauntings, in M.T. Anderson’s “The House Haunts,” found in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Don’t miss a transparent Abigail Adams floating through the White House with her load of laundry in Mark Teague’s complementary illustration.
  • Learn why Truman began playing piano in “Presidents Are People Too!
  • Learn more about President Truman and his legacy in the “Presidential Fact Files.”

Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

  • Do you believe news sources can be trusted to reveal “the facts” in a presidential election? Why or why not?
  • To express his ideas and plans to build upon and improve the workings of our government, and therefore the standard of living, in America after World War II, President Truman decided to travel by train across the country to reach out and appeal to the working class. If you were running for president in twenty-first century America, what strategy would you use (remember Truman’s strategy was dubbed a “whistle-stop” campaign) to reach the American people? Would it be a time-honored strategy or a new, creative approach, such as President Truman’s?
  • Have you ever read an incorrect fact in a newspaper, magazine, or online article? If so, what was the incorrect source and where did you eventually find accurate information?
  • Have you ever been unfairly labeled an underdog, similar to Harry S Truman in the 1948 election? What actions did you take to overcome your obstacles, rather than be defeated by them?

Activities for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

  • Conduct a free poll on, in which you survey a sample of your community in an attempt to accurately predict the outcome of the presidential election. Then, conduct the poll face-to-face, after introducing and providing your viewpoint as to a certain election issue. Chart the difference in results between the two polls. Compare the results to the actual presidential election outcome in November. Assessment: Poll results, charts.
  • Select an election-related article of interest from a newspaper. Identify the main idea and essential message from the story by answering the five Ws and one H (Who, What, When, Where, Why, How). (Draw a graphic organizer with the name of the article in the middle with branching bubbles for each question). Based upon this analysis, is the news reporter objective? Why is he or she writing the story? How do you know the information is factual and/or objective? Assessment: Graphic Organizer, group discussion.
  • Examine an election-related story of the same topic from the following sources: CNN, New York Times, C-SPAN, Google News, Huffington Post, Slate, and NPR. (Create a table with Facts and Opinions as the columns and the individual news sources as the rows). How did factual information differ? How was it the same? Which did you find more of – facts or opinion? Was it difficult to tell the difference between fact and opinion? Assessment: Table, group discussion.
  • Using a VENN diagram, compare and contrast the political cartoons of the 1948 election found at the Truman Library with that of the current presidential election (you may use for recent cartoons). Assessment: Venn Diagram, group discussion. Note: A Venn diagram is a graphic organizer which highlights similarities and differences between sets. To complete this type of organizer, draw two intersecting circles and place what is similar about the sets within the overlapping section and what is different within the outer circles. See

Reference Sources

“Dewey Defeats Truman.” Memory. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. 27 July 2010. Web. 29 February 2012.

Haydock, Michael. “The Presidential Election: 1948.” American History, 33.2 (1998): 16. Print.

Miller, Merle. Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman. New York: Putnam, 1974. Print.

“Presidential Politics: Truman.” American Experience. PBS Online. n.d. Web. 29 February 2012.

©2016 by Reneé Critcher Lyons; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance