Dewey Defeats Truman

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Harry Truman, the loser victor. (Alternate headline: "I GOT NUKES")
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Dewey Defeats Truman was an infamous newspaper headline, printed (or rather, released) on November 3, 1948, the day after the 1948 United States presidential election, declaring that incumbent Harry S. Truman (D) lost to challenger Thomas E. Dewey (R), then-governor of New York. The opposite had in fact occurred, thus making the Chicago Daily Tribune a source of ridicule ever since.

One part newspaper...[edit]

The Chicago Tribune was (and still is) a notably conservative Republican newspaper, sometimes bluntly bashing non-conservatives.[note 1] During the election, many of its workers were on strike. With resources as thin as they were, and having recently switched to a more time-consuming printing method (which involved first typewriting the content, then photographing it, and then finally engraving it onto the printing press...phew!) the remaining staff kicked into overdrive, printing the next day's edition unusually early. Thus, they relied on only the very, very earliest election returns, polls, and a prediction from a leading political analyst, all of which indicated that Dewey would win.

One part election hubris...[edit]

The 1948 election was actually quite close. Dewey was heavily favored, and many expected him to win, as Truman had to fight off not one, but two third-party splinters from the Democratic Party: Henry A. Wallace's leftist campaign on the Progressive Party ticket competing with him for the labor vote, and Strom Thurmond running as a pro-segregation "States' Rights Democrat" to protest the national Democratic Party adopting a civil rights plank, drawing away votes in the "Solid South". Compounding that was the transition to a peacetime economy after World War II, which left the U.S. in a technical recession (with shortages in consumer goods and spikes in inflation).

Dewey's only major stumbling block was that he was too cautious with his image, leading to rather hilariously vague, broad, and vapid speeches[note 2] that could be summarized into a mere sentence and not lose any content. Despite this, numerous contemporary polls reinforced the gut feeling that Dewey would win commandingly. Truman, however, could rely on his association with his popular (and late) predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and seeing to the end of World War II. Not to mention that he could very easily exploit Dewey's strategy for his own gain.

...And voilà, a gaffe![edit]

As it turned out, the polls and early returns were all wrong,[1] and Truman pulled through in what is still considered the biggest electoral upset in American history.[note 3] The Tribune eventually managed to correct their fatal error in a later-in-the-day edition, but it was too late; there were already 150,000 copies circulated, leading to the famous photo above. In fact, they were not the only newspaper to call the election prematurely in favor of Dewey; several others across the country also did the same. None, however, was nearly as high-profile or prolific as the Tribune's. A great lesson in journalism learned, hopefully.

Attempted amends[edit]

The Tribune would eventually warm up to their mistake and perhaps laugh at it. As the 25th anniversary of the incident neared, the Tribune planned to give Truman a plaque with a replica of the headline, as some sort of apology, or something. Sadly, Truman died in December 1972, before they could give it to him.

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  1. At one point they called Truman a "nincompoop," which was, by the standards of the time, almost a cuss word.
  2. Unlike Romney, however, Dewey didn't shed his moderate beliefs to appeal to the Tafts.
  3. But barely, at least in the popular vote.Wikipedia A difference of only a few thousand votes in several swing states, namely Ohio, Illinois, and California, would've been all it took to make Dewey president instead.