In my upcoming book, The Candy Bombers, I tell the story of how Harry Truman's election campaign in 1948 intersected with the war scare surrounding the Soviet blockade of Berlin. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it was not economic populism or personality contrasts that were - first and foremost - responsible for the Truman Defeats Dewey upset. It was very real national security concerns that helped Truman turn back the challenge from far-left former Vice President Henry Wallace, reunite the Democratic Party, and recapture a White House that the pundits thought was lost.
We look back on 1948 now and laugh at the misguided pollsters and political professionals who all assumed that Truman's campaign was a hopeless cause. A survey of the top 50 political pundits by Newsweek showed a unanimous belief that Dewey was a shoo-in. As I write in The Candy Bombers:
In Albany, Dewey's legal counsel Charles Breitel and a large staff burned the lights in their Capitol offices late into the night as they poured over heavy, leather-bound volumes of federal statutes and regulations, studied elaborate charts of the executive branch's structure and configuration, and outlined the duties and reach of every agency, board, and commission that they needed to be prepared to stock with loyal Republican functionaries ready to serve after nearly two decades in the wilderness. The head of the United States Secret Service decided he should be in New York for the election rather than Missouri. The reference book, Who's Who, sent its 1949 edition to print listing Dewey's address as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For its first election night coverage on television, NBC News built a large cardboard model of the White House with a tiny treadmill inside that would spin miniature elephants around for the camera once the results had been called. There were no miniature donkeys on hand.
But as we all now know, Dewey did not defeat Truman. I've been thinking often about this historical episode in the days since the results came through in New Hampshire. I was - along with every other observer on the ground in the Granite State - convinced that Senator Obama had the victory. Senator Clinton's own internal polls had her down 11 points. Her staff did not bother drafting a victory speech for that night. But it turned out that even though the science of polling has grown much more sophisticated in the 60 years since 1948, history can still have the last laugh on all of us.
When Harry Truman returned to Washington after his victory, he passed by the Washington Post building where the staff had hung up a sign reading, "Welcome Home from the Crow Eaters." All those of us who have chuckled about the misguided, mistaken politicians and journalists of 1948 - and all of us who believed that political polling was too sophisticated to make such a mistake again - should be helping ourselves to a heaping serving of crow in the aftermath of New Hampshire.
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