The Magazine

It Ain't Over Till It's Over

The case against pessimism.

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By JAMES PIERESON
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The most dramatic electoral comeback of modern times was, of course, Harry Truman's victory over Governor Thomas Dewey in the election of 1948. Public opinion polling was then still in its infancy, and Truman's surprise victory came close to discrediting the industry altogether. At that time there were just two major polling organizations, Gallup and Roper, both of which reported significant leads for Dewey. Elmo Roper, much to his regret, took a single poll in early September giving Dewey a 15-point lead (53 to 38 percent) and abandoned the field for the rest of the campaign in the belief that the race was over. A Gallup poll also taken in early September gave Dewey a 12-point lead (48 to 36 percent), with third-party candidate Henry Wallace at 5 percent. A later poll taken in mid-October gave Dewey a more slender lead of 46 to 40 percent with Wallace's vote taken down to 4 percent. The final Gallup poll taken on October 25 and reported in the press a few days later, gave Dewey a 5 point lead, 49 to 44 percent (or a lead very close to the one Obama now has over McCain). In the final results, Truman won by 5 points nationally, 50 to 45 percent.

The Gallup organization also conducted surveys in each of the 50 states on the basis of which George Gallup, in an article published in the Washington Post on October 29, predicted that Dewey would win 363 electoral votes and President Truman 140 (with a few states too close to allocate). According to his estimates, Dewey was ahead by 10 points in Illinois, 7 points in California, 11 points in Ohio, 15 points in both Iowa and Wisconsin, and 7 points in Massachusetts. Truman carried every one of these states (narrowly) in the election, for a swing of 116 electoral votes in his favor.

Truman, confident of a victory, ridiculed the pollsters in the final days of the election. "You can throw the Gallup poll right in the ashcan," he said, adding that "there will be more red-faced pollsters on November 3 than there were in 1936 when they had to fold up The Literary Digest." The day after the election, the New York Times, in vindication of Truman's forecast, published an article under the headline, "Election Prophets Ponder in Dismay," in which the heads of the leading polling organizations acknowledged that they did not pick up the late trend in favor of Truman. Polling experts learned from harsh experience that, in order to forecast accurate results, they had to continue taking surveys right up to Election Day.

Truman succeeded in gaining ground on Dewey by casting himself as an aggressive alternative to his cool and detached opponent who seemed to be coasting to the finish in the belief that his election was a foregone conclusion. Truman encouraged his supporters by telling them over and over again that he was going to win the election, notwithstanding what the polls and editorial pages were saying. He did not attack Dewey personally so much as he ridiculed the "no good 80th Congress" which (he claimed) took sides in favor of business against labor unions. Humphrey and Ford rallied in the closing weeks of the 1968 and 1976 elections by raising doubts about the character or competence of their opponents. Both, however, were so far behind when they launched their rallies that they could never quite erase their disadvantages.

Fortunately for his campaign, McCain does not trail by so large a margin as that which Humphrey and Ford had to overcome. Indeed, McCain's challenge is not dissimilar to that which faced Truman in the final weeks of the 1948 campaign--that is, overcoming a 5-point or so lead against a relatively unknown and aloof opponent who seems assured of victory. McCain, like Truman, is burdened by an unpopular administration of his own party, though, in contrast to -Truman, he has some chance of disassociating himself from it. Somewhat like Truman in 1947 and 1948, McCain has been preoccupied with foreign policy at a time when economic issues have seized the headlines. Many pundits in 1948 said that the New Deal era was about to end, just as some have said recently that the Reagan-Thatcher era will soon be over. Truman proved the pundits wrong in 1948, and there remains a slender chance that McCain might do so again in 2008.

James Piereson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism.