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This Day in History: Harry Truman’s surprising election

On this day in 1948, Harry Truman pulls off a startling victory. Public opinion polls had predicted that he would lose his bid for the presidency . . . except then he didn’t. Indeed, the Chicago Daily Tribune was so sure of Truman’s impending defeat that it pre-printed an erroneous headline in big, bold letters across its front page.

Maybe you’ve seen it? “Dewey Defeats Truman!”

Except Thomas E. Dewey didn’t win. He really didn’t even come that close. Truman won handily, 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189. A third-party candidate, Strom Thurmond, came in a distant third with 39 electoral votes.

The pollsters had made a fatal mistake: They’d failed to poll often enough during the final weeks of the campaign, and they’d made too many assumptions about undecided voters. Thus, they didn’t catch it when voters began breaking for Truman during the final two weeks before Election Day.

One study later showed that as many as 1 in every 7 voters made up their minds in the last two weeks before the election. Of these, 75% broke for Truman.

The media and pollsters were embarrassed, to say the least. When Truman arrived back in Washington, D.C. after the election, he was greeted by a big sign across the Washington Post building: “Mr. President, we are ready to eat crow whenever you are ready to serve it.”

How nice to live in a time when so much civility and good grace still reigned?!

Truman’s victory was surprising for another reason: The Democratic convention had gone very badly, and it seemed impossible to unify the party afterwards. A group of southern delegates had marched out of the convention. They were irate about changes to the party platform, and they refused to participate in the nomination of Harry S. Truman for President. These southerners had instead nominated then-Governor Strom Thurmond as an alternative, third-party nominee.

The third-party candidacy of Thurmond created a weird twist that year: Normally, such an effort would have dragged on the rest of the party, splitting it so badly that it would be impossible to win. Instead, Thurmond’s third-party campaign did the opposite: It freed Truman from a racist taint that threatened to drag him down. Suddenly, Truman was able to present himself as a reasonable, mainstream candidate who could appeal to a greater variety of voters. He was able to obtain the votes of many northerners who had been feeling unsure about him.

The Electoral College requires coalition-building and efforts to bring a wide variety of voters into the fold. The 1948 election might have been a three-man race, but the Electoral College still rewarded the candidate who did the best job of that—even if the pollsters didn’t see it coming.

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