Dewey Defeats Truman

President Harry Truman holding up a newspaper that reads, Dewey Defeats Truman.
President Harry Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune declaring his defeat to Thomas Dewey in the presidential election, St Louis, MIssouri. (November 1948). Underwood Archives/Getty Images

On November 3, 1948, the morning after the 1948 presidential election, the Chicago Daily Tribune's headline read, "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN." That's what the Republicans, the polls, the newspapers, the political writers, and even many Democrats had expected. But in the largest political upset in U.S. history, Harry S. Truman surprised everyone when he, and not Thomas E. Dewey, won the 1948 election for President of the United States.

Truman Steps In

A little less than three months into his fourth term, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. Two and a half hours after his death, Harry S. Truman was sworn in as President of the United States.

Truman was thrust into the presidency during World War II. Though the war in Europe was clearly in the Allies' favor and nearing an end, the war in the Pacific was continuing unmercifully. Truman was allowed no time for transition; it was his responsibility to lead the U.S. to peace.

While completing Roosevelt's term, Truman was responsible for making the fateful decision to end the war with Japan by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; creating the Truman Doctrine to give economic aid to Turkey and Greece as part of a containment policy; helping the U.S. make a transition to a peace-time economy; blocking Stalin's attempts to conquer Europe, by instigating the Berlin airlift; helping create the state of Israel for Holocaust survivors; and fighting for strong changes toward equal rights for all citizens.

Yet the public and newspapers were against Truman. They called him a "little man" and often claimed he was inept. Perhaps the main reason for the dislike for President Truman was because he was very much unlike their beloved Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thus, when Truman was up for election in 1948, many people did not want to the "little man" to run.

Don't Run!

Political campaigns are largely ritualistic.... All the evidence we have accumulated since 1936 tends to indicate that the man in the lead at the beginning of the campaign is the man who is the winner at the end of it.... The winner, it appears, clinches his victory early in the race and before he has uttered a word of campaign oratory.1
--- Elmo Roper

For four terms, the Democrats had won the presidency with a "sure thing" - Franklin D. Roosevelt. They wanted another "sure thing" for the presidential election of 1948, especially since the Republicans were going to choose Thomas E. Dewey as their candidate. Dewey was relatively young, seemed well-liked, and had come very close to Roosevelt for the popular vote in the 1944 election.

And though incumbent presidents usually have a strong chance to be re-elected, many Democrats didn't think Truman could win against Dewey. Though there were serious efforts to get famed General Dwight D. Eisenhower to run, Eisenhower refused. Though many Democrats were not happy, Truman became the official Democratic candidate at the convention.

Give 'Em Hell Harry vs. The Polls

The polls, reporters, political writers - they all believed Dewey was going to win by a landslide.

On September 9, 1948, Elmo Roper was so confident of a Dewey win that he announced there would be no further Roper Polls on this election. Roper said, "My whole inclination is to predict the election of Thomas E. Dewey by a heavy margin and devote my time and efforts to other things."2

Truman was undaunted. He believed that with a lot of hard work, he could get the votes. Though it is usually the contender and not the incumbent that works hard to win the race, Dewey and the Republicans were so confident they were going to win - barring any major faux pas - that they decided to make an extremely low-key campaign.

Truman's campaign was based on getting out to the people. While Dewey was aloof and stuffy, Truman was open, friendly, and seemed one with the people. In order to talk to the people, Truman got in his special Pullman car, the Ferdinand Magellan, and traveled the country.

In six weeks, Truman traveled approximately 32,000 miles and gave 355 speeches.3

On this "Whistle-Stop Campaign," Truman would stop at town after town and give a speech, have people ask questions, introduce his family, and shake hands. From his dedication and strong will to fight as an underdog against the Republicans, Harry Truman acquired the slogan, "Give 'em hell, Harry!"

But even with perseverance, hard work, and large crowds, the media still didn't believe Truman had a fighting chance. While President Truman was still on the road campaigning, Newsweek polled 50 key political journalists to determine which candidate they thought would win. Appearing in the October 11 issue, Newsweek stated the results: all 50 believed Dewey would win.

The Election

By election day, the polls showed that Truman had managed to cut Dewey's lead, but all media sources still believed Dewey would win by a landslide.

As the reports filtered in that night, Truman was ahead in the popular votes, but the newscasters still believed Truman didn't have a chance.

By four the next morning, Truman's success seemed undeniable. At 10:14 a.m., Dewey conceded the election to Truman.

Since the election results were a complete shock to the media, the Chicago Daily Tribune got caught with the headline "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN." The photograph with Truman holding aloft the paper has become one of the most famous newspaper photos of the century.