Why Truman’s 1948 upset isn’t any template for the 2024 U.S. presidential election, in accordance with the skilled who wrote the ebook on polling failure

Harry S. Truman’s gorgeous, come-from-behind victory within the 1948 presidential election has inspired frissons of optimism for long-shot candidates ever since. Walter Mondale invoked the 1948 election in his race towards President Ronald Reagan in 1984, insisting the polls signaling his overwhelming defeat weren’t choosing up the favored assist flowing to his candidacy. Mondale misplaced in a 49-state landslide. In 1996, Bob Dole channeled Truman’s pugnacity of 1948, IT-or-not/” goal=”_blank” rel=”noopener” class=”sc-76811d68-0 jyYcOa”>declaring, “I’m going to win whether or not you want IT or not.” The closing hours of Dole’s race towards President Invoice Clinton included a marketing campaign cease at Truman’s hometown in Independence, Missouri. Dole misplaced by 8.5 share factors.

President Joe Biden’s uncertain campaign for reelection this yr has invited comparisons to Truman’s come-from-behind victory in 1948. A current assessment in Politico, for instance, mentioned the blueprint Truman adopted in his aggressive and strenuous marketing campaign in 1948 provides Biden a playbook for victory. Even the main newspaper in France, Le Monde, has invoked the 1948 template as a manner of understanding this yr’s U.S. presidential election.

Whereas broad and superficial similarities could also be detected between 2024 and 1948, the 2 instances are in reality fairly dissimilar, particularly within the typical knowledge that pre-election polls generate and reinforce.

Polling-induced cockiness

As I notice in Lost in a Gallup, my ebook about polling failure in presidential elections, pre-election polls are central to how journalists, and People at giant, perceive the dynamics of presidential campaigns.

For a lot of months, opinion polls have signaled a tight race between Biden and former President Donald Trump. That wasn’t the case in any respect in 1948 when Republican Thomas E. Dewey maintained a clear polling lead all through the marketing campaign. The poll-driven narrative of 1948 anointed Dewey because the prohibitive favorite.

There have been fewer nationwide pollsters in 1948, however their observe document within the earlier three presidential campaigns (all gained by Franklin D. Roosevelt) inspired confidence that the outcomes they reported had been extremely dependable.

Among the many early pollsters was Elmo Roper, whose survey experiences appeared in Fortune for a few years starting in 1935. In September 1948, Roper confidently declared on his CBS radio program that the “science” of opinion polling had “come of age” and had “proved its accuracy and price.” He introduced at the moment he would launch no additional ballot outcomes, so sure he was that political campaigns made little distinction and that Dewey would win the election by “a heavy margin.”

Different main pollsters of the day, George Gallup and Archibald Crossley, likewise predicted Dewey’s victory. Each of them ended their polling in October, effectively earlier than the 1948 election. Gallup was unequivocal in reporting his last pre-election ballot that yr, writing: “Dewey will win the Presidential election with a considerable majority of electoral votes.”

Gallup additionally said that “the entire world will have the ability to see right down to the final share level how good we’re” on Election Day 1948.

Of their respective polls, Gallup and Crossley projected Dewey’s victory by 5 share factors. Truman carried the favored vote by 4.5 factors and gained 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189.

Roper afterward conceded that pollsters “had gotten fairly smug, and I used to be one of many smuggest of the lot.”

Few similarities between the 2024 and 1948 campaigns

Pollster cockiness hardly has been a function of the 2024 race–not after high-profile surprises in the latest presidential elections. In an final result that rivaled 1948 for shock worth, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, due partially to late-campaign preference shifts that polls largely did not detect in such key states as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

In 2020, a number of distinguished nationwide polls, together with these carried out for CNN and collectively for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, anticipated Biden’s profitable by 10 factors or extra. Biden carried the favored vote by 4.5 factors in what, general, was the poorest polling performance in a presidential election since 1980.

As of Apr. 4, the RealClearPolitics polling average confirmed Trump with lower than a share level lead in a two-way race towards Biden–scarcely a margin to encourage 1948-style overconfidence.

One other notable distinction lies within the sense of vigor projected by the Democratic candidates. Truman was 64 years old in 1948 and pursued a grueling marketing campaign of a sort that’s tough to think about the 81-year-old Biden even remotely considering. Truman logged hundreds of miles by practice in an arduous, cross-country whistlestop campaign, or what biographer David McCullough referred to as “a fast-rolling political roadshow.”

“I do know I can take IT,” Truman mentioned of the pains of the marketing campaign, including in jest: “I’m solely afraid I’ll kill a few of my employees.”

In the meantime, Dewey ran an above-the-fray campaign, a mannequin Trump would by no means embrace. Dewey, in contrast to Trump, sought to reduce controversy and prevented particular coverage pronouncements, as soon as telling an aide “When you’re leading, don’t talk.”

Different notable variations between 1948 and 2024 are usually not tough to establish.

The Democrats fractured 3 ways in 1948. The segregationist Dixiecrats nominated J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its presidential candidate; he carried 4 Deep South states. The far-left Progressives chosen former Vice President Henry Wallace of Iowa, who gained not a single state. Truman led the mainstream Democrats and carried 28 states. (Dewey gained 16 states.)

This yr, in contrast, Democrats are largely, if not ardently, unified round Biden, though the impartial candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. may attract votes in any other case destined for the president. As of early April, nevertheless, Kennedy’s marketing campaign has certified for the November poll in only one state.

In U.S. presidential elections, previous is seldom prologue. A polling-derived shock akin to that of 1948 is very unlikely this yr.

W. Joseph Campbell, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of communication at American College in Washington, D.C. He has written seven solo-authored books together with, most just lately, Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections. You’ll be able to comply with him on X @wjosephcampbell.

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The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary items are solely the views of their authors and don’t essentially mirror the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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2 thoughts on “Why Truman’s 1948 upset isn’t any template for the 2024 U.S. presidential election, in accordance with the skilled who wrote the ebook on polling failure”

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