Seldom in American history has an incumbent president been such an underdog for re-election as was Harry Truman in the fall of 1948. In the mid-term elections of 1946 his Democratic Party had lost both the Senate and the House to the Republicans, and Truman, as the party’s standard bearer, took the blame.
Certainly economic troubles contributed to Truman’s unpopularity. In particular, World War II-induced shortages of consumer goods had led to widespread inflation, causing labor unions to demand higher wages. But Truman’s biggest political problem in 1948 was his courageous decision to order the integration of the armed services. As a result, the powerful southern wing of his party left to form their own Dixiecrat Party, nominating South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond to run for president against Truman.
Truman also faced a formidable Republican opponent that year, the popular governor of New York, Tom Dewey, who had lost to the legendary Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 but figured to easily defeat Truman. In fact, Dewey was so confident of victory, his campaign strategy amounted to doing and saying as little as possible. And according to the polls, Dewey’s strategy was working. Every major polling group in America had Dewey defeating Truman by wide margins, and the political pundits were nearly unanimous in predicting a Dewey victory.
But Truman was a fighter, and after securing the Democratic nomination, he embarked on a nationwide “whistle stop” tour, riding his presidential train into traditionally Republican-held areas, where he would give speech after speech blasting the “do nothing” Republican-controlled Congress for failing to pass a single piece of important legislation. Slowly, Truman’s campaign gained momentum, and ever-larger crowds began cheering him on with cries of “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” It became his campaign theme.
By election eve the tide was turning, but few of the “experts” realized it. Figuring the election was a foregone conclusion, they had turned to other matters, and thus were as shocked as the rest of America when they awoke on November 3rd to discover that Harry Truman, not Tom Dewey was president—and it wasn’t even close. Truman received 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189.
But no one was more shocked than the editors of the Chicago Daily Tribune, who were so confident of Dewey’s victory they printed their November 3rd edition before the counting was done. Thus the headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman” greeted president-elect Truman the next day, prompting the partly amused, partly defiant Truman to hold the newspaper up for photographers.
The resulting picture of a grinning Truman flashing the Tribune’s erroneous headline became, and remains, among the most famous news photos in American history. It’s one of the photos on the collage on my home page and you can also find it by Googling “Dewey Defeats Truman.”