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The Misleading Story of Harry Truman's Comeback

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It's boring to point out that divided government is bad for President Obama, so journalists and commentators have been trying to make silly up-is-down arguments about why GOP control of Congress might help him politically.

These pundits frequently invoke the examples of Bill Clinton and Harry Truman, who both campaigned against an opposition Congress and won re-election. But as I've shown, Clinton's win was primarily driven by the booming economy, not his political maneuvering against the GOP Congress of 1995-1996.

What's even less well-known is that the same story applies to Harry Truman. Here's an example of how Truman's win is often portrayed from Frank Rich's column on Sunday:

In the 1946 midterms, the unpopular and error-prone rookie president Harry Truman, buffeted by a different set of economic dislocations, watched his party lose both chambers of Congress (including 54 seats in the House) to a G.O.P. that then moved steadily to the right in its determination to cut government spending and rip down the New Deal safety net. Two years after this Democratic wipeout, despite a hostile press and a grievously divided party, Truman roared back, in part by daring the Republican Congress to enact its reactionary plans. He won against all odds, as David McCullough writes in "Truman," because "there was something in the American character that responded to a fighter."

The NYT's Peter Baker told a similar story in the Week in Review in late October:

Divided government, of course, is rarely pretty, and a Republican victory would mean the end of some of Mr. Obama's most expansive ideas, at least for now...

But other opportunities could open for Mr. Obama if he can take advantage, according to political specialists from across the spectrum. Either he will find a way to forge agreements with Republicans ... or he may be able to play off Congress as an adversary much as Mr. Clinton did with House Speaker Newt Gingrich 15 years ago, and as Harry Truman did with the so-called Do-Nothing Congress decades before that...

Gridlock can work in a president's favor if he can pin the blame on the other side. Unpopular as he was in 1948, Truman portrayed the Republican Congress as the real obstacle to progress, even calling a special summer session and daring it to pass the more liberal reform platform adopted by its own party's nominating convention. When Republican lawmakers refused, Mr. Truman campaigned against Congress and beat the odds to win the election.

Unfortunately, the dramatic narrative of Truman's victory and what it tells us about "the American character" doesn't hold up to scrutiny. As James Campbell pointed out in 2004 (gated), Truman's comeback was fueled by "sizzling" economic growth:

Until recently, for instance, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) figured that GDP in the first half of 1948 (leading into the Truman-Dewey contest) was growing at a healthy 4.1% rate. The BEA's latest series indicates that this greatly understated growth at the outset of the 1948 campaign. The BEA now figures that the economy was growing at a sizzling 6.8%, a revision that helps explain Truman's miraculous comeback...

Truman actually enjoyed three consecutive quarters of rapid growth in the run-up to the election. Here's what GDP growth looked like between the second quarter of 1947 (the earliest period for which BEA has quarterly data on growth) and the third quarter of 1948:

Truman

Indeed, relative to the rate of growth he enjoyed in the second quarter of an election year, Truman actually slightly underperformed according to this plot by Alan Abramowitz (PDF):


Abramowitz

In short, while the idea of the underdog Truman fighting against the "Do Nothing Congress" sounds inspiring, the success of his re-election campaign was driven by the state of the economy. Despite all the counter-intuitive hype, the same logic will apply to Obama.

Update 11/24 9:11 AM: The Weekly Standard's Jay Cost disputes the claim made above, citing a book by election expert Michael Barone:

Regarding the graph that tracks Q2 GDP against electoral outcomes, Jonathan Chait and Brendan Nyhan recently argued that the strength of the economy in 1948 was a big reason why Truman was bound to win, and it was a "myth" that he came from behind. Indeed, Q2 GDP was very strong that year. But Michael Barone -- who frankly knows more about modern American politics than anybody I've ever read -- makes exactly the opposite claim. In My Country, he writes:

Dewey's above-the-battle strategy, an overreaction to the criticism he had endured for campaigning too bitterly after the Fala speech in 1944, gave Truman the opening to charge that Republicans were going to shut down successful government programs and refuse to protect ordinary citizens when hard times returned.  For ordinary citizens did not know that twenty years of prosperity and vibrant economic growth lay ahead.  Around 1947 they may have begun to suspect that that was the case, but the slowdown in the fall of 1948 raised just enough apprehension about another recession that a critical number of voters decided to keep the Democrats in for another four years.  In October, Truman started attacking Herbert Hoover, even though he had brought the former president back into government to head a commission on reorganization.  [Emphases Mine]

If the only thing you knew about the 1948 election was where Q2 GDP fell on a scatterplot against the election results, you'd conclude that it was the strength of the economy that favored Truman, not the weakness. Yet Barone, as has been his stock in trade for decades, supplies the needed context and turns conventional wisdom on its head. In the election of 1948, millions of people who voted still had painful memories of the Great Depression and the seeming indifference of Hooveresque Republicanism. They also had different expectations of what a healthy economy should look like, not having been through the amazing growth of the 1950s-1960s or the 1980s-1990s. Dewey's aloofness gave Truman the opportunity to exploit these sentiments as economic growth slowed from 7.6% in Q2 to 0.6% in Q4, and thus the CW has it exactly backward: it was the weakness of the economy that favored Truman, not the strength.

I don't claim to be an expert in the specifics of Truman's re-election campaign, but the fact that Barone thinks "apprehension about another recession" led to "a critical number of voters decided to keep the Democrats in for another four years" isn't convincing evidence that "it was the weakness of the economy that favored Truman, not the strength." The relationship between economic performance and the presidential vote for the incumbent party is one of the strongest in political science. Why would we assume it was reversed in 1948?

[Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com]