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On this day in history, November 2, 1948, Truman defeats Dewey, shocking pundits and mocking headlines


Embattled President Harry S. Truman shocked political pundits and scoffed at national headlines when he defeated Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey in the race for the White House on this day in history, 2 November 1948.

“Dewey defeats Truman,” cried the headline the next day in the Chicago Daily Tribune, the famous newspaper kept in the air by the beaming president.

The dramatic but misguided oversize font testified to the certainty experts had of a new era in Washington, D.C.

The president’s “defeat was widely expected and often predicted, but Truman’s drive for campaigning and willingness to confront issues won him a plurality of voters,” proclaimed the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.

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“His famous ‘Whistlestop’ campaign tour across the country has faded into political folklore, as has the photo of beaming Truman holding up the newspaper whose headline proclaims ‘Dewey beats Truman’.”

Truman’s presidency, including his first term, was one of the most important in American history.

President Harry Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune declaring defeat to Thomas Dewey in the presidential election, in St. Louis, Missouri, November 1948.
(Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

He ascended to office after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945, less than three months after becoming vice president.

The “defeat of the president was widely expected and often predicted”. — Truman Library

He oversaw Germany’s defeat in World War II in May; leads America in its role as United Nations leader, chartered in June; ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to hasten the end of the war in August; and celebrated Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II in September.

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“Truman made some of the most pivotal decisions in history,” WhiteHouse.gov notes in its biography of the 33rd president.

Yet for all the nerve of steel displayed with the weight of the world suddenly imposed upon him, Truman’s presidency began to unravel as the glow of victory faded and the nation grappled with the new world order.

In this August 6, 1945 file photo released by the U.S. military, a mushroom cloud swells about an hour after an atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima in western Japan.  Truman ordered the atomic bombings just four months after assuming the presidency;  he was unaware of the existence of the atomic program as Vice President.

In this August 6, 1945 file photo released by the U.S. military, a mushroom cloud swells about an hour after an atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima in western Japan. Truman ordered the atomic bombings just four months after assuming the presidency; he was unaware of the existence of the atomic program as Vice President.
(AP Photo/US Army via Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, HO)

“The economic difficulties of reconversion [from the wartime economy] and the popular perception of him as rude and brutal had hurt his popularity,” reported the Truman Library.

“His inconsistencies on the Palestinian issue contributed to the feeling that he was not up to his job,” the same source said.

“Truman had a ham sandwich, a glass of milk and went to bed early on election night.”

“The Republican Congress had rejected almost all of his proposals for domestic reform. And it was not yet clear that his foreign policy initiatives in Europe would succeed. To make matters worse, support within his own party was disintegrating.”

Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York from 1943 to 1955, hoped to escalate this discontent in the Oval Office.

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Dewey was a prominent figure on the national political scene as chief executive of the largest state in the union at the time.

District Attorney Dewey helped bring down organized crime in New York City in the 1930s, including prosecuting notorious mob boss “Lucky” Luciano.

Making an 11-hour bid to win undecided voters to his side, Governor Thomas E. Dewey, a candidate for re-election as Empire State chief executive, began a long day of broadcasts and appearances at the television at station WOR-TV at 6 a.m. on November 6, 1950. The schedule called for an 18-hour day for the governor, pictured answering a phone while Mrs. Dewey answered other phones.

Making an 11-hour bid to win undecided voters to his side, Governor Thomas E. Dewey, a candidate for re-election as Empire State chief executive, began a long day of broadcasts and appearances at the television at station WOR-TV at 6 a.m. on November 6, 1950. The schedule called for an 18-hour day for the governor, pictured answering a phone while Mrs. Dewey answered other phones.
(Getty Pictures)

But despite all his success, the White House eluded him twice.

Born in 1902, Dewey was the first child of the 20th century to run for president when he faced FDR in 1944.

He lost again, to the shock of everyone but Truman, in 1948.

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Truman won the election with less than a majority – 49.6% of the popular vote. But it was enough to capture 303 electoral votes, compared to just 189 for Dewey.

Third-party Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond won 39 electoral votes.

Truman woke up in the morning to find the pundits — and the headlines — had been wrong.

Truman opted out of running full-time for a second time in 1952, while Dewey helped defend Dwight Eisenhower’s successful campaign.

“Truman had a ham sandwich, a glass of milk and went to bed early on election night, November 2, 1948,” the National Portrait Gallery reported of the ongoing political upheaval.

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“Polls taken weeks before had indicated that New York Governor Thomas Dewey would sweep the election and move into the White House on Inauguration Day in 1949.”

Truman woke up in the morning to find the pundits — and the headlines — had been wrong.

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