On Election Day, trust your head, not the press or the polls

By Susan Gibbs

A delighted President Harry S. Truman shows off the famously incorrect headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” at St. Louis Union Station in 1948

The 1948 presidential race was heated.

President Harry S. Truman, who succeeded to the presidency upon the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, had, on December 5, 1946, established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights.

The Committee was instructed to investigate the status of civil rights in the country and propose measures to strengthen and protect them.

In October 1947, To Secure These Rights: The Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights was produced. The 178-page report proposed improving existing civil rights laws. More specifically, it aimed to establish a permanent Civil Rights Commission, a Joint Congressional Committee on Civil Rights, and a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice to develop federal protection from lynching, to create a Fair Employment Practices Commission, and to abolish poll taxes, among other measures.

On February 2, 1948 Truman sent a message to Congress to implement the recommendations of the Committee, and lost the support of many Southern whites.

At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia July 12-14, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey supported Truman, urging the Democratic Party to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

All of the Mississippi and half of the Alabama delegates walked out, for a total of 35, when Truman was praised for his “courageous stand on civil rights.” They later nominated Strom Thurmond as the presidential candidate for the States’ Rights Party, or “Dixiecrats.”

Nevertheless, days after the convention ended, on July 26, 1948, Truman advanced the Committee’s recommendations by signing Executive Order 9980, which ordered the desegregation of the federal work force, and Executive Order 9981, which ordered the desegregation of the armed services.

The Dixiecrats hoped to cause enough of a split to throw the election into the House, thereby preventing a civil-rights supporter from being elected. In addition, many within the Democratic party were dissatisfied with Truman’s running mate, Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley. Once again, there was defection, leading to the announcement of Henry Wallace and running mate Senator Glen Taylor on the Progressive ticket.

The New York Times stated, “The (Democratic) Party might as well immediately concede the election to (New York Governor Thomas E.) Dewey and save the wear and tear of campaigning.”

A Gallup poll reported that only 36 percent of the people thought that Truman was doing a good job as President. The nation was discontented with high taxes, a rising cost of living, labor strife, and the Cold War that came with the end of World War II.

The media hounded on the latest polls, which were predicting a Dewey win, as did leading national political writers. Months before the election, Life ran a cover picture of Dewey with a caption that read, “The Next President of the United States.”

Headline after headline touted Dewey as President, even as Truman was gaining the following of the people. His feisty campaign style was energizing his base of traditional Democrats, most of the white South, Catholic and Jewish voters, and Midwestern farmers

But the press – and the polls — discounted him to the end.

According to reports, evidence from recent elections had falsely convinced pollsters that voters had already decided whom they would support by September. As a result, many were so confident of Dewey’s victory that they simply stopped polling weeks before the election, and thus missed a last-minute surge of support for Truman.

The Chicago Daily Tribune, a pro-Republican newspaper, was so sure of Dewey’s victory that on the afternoon of Election Day, before any polls closed, it printed “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” as its headline for the following day.

On election night—November 2, 1948—when Truman took an early lead that he never lost, he continued to be discounted.

Leading radio commentators confidently predicted that  when “late returns” came in Dewey would overcome Truman’s lead and win. Even at midnight, one popular commentator announced that even though Truman was ahead in the popular vote, he couldn’t possibly win.

Instead, while Truman took 49.6 percent of the popular vote to Dewey’s 45.1, he finished with 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189.

Reports indicate that as of 2008 Truman is the most unpopular leader to win re-election – but that his standing with all Americans increased so much in the ensuing decades that he is now remembered by many historians as one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century.

This story is a cautionary one for journalists, but what about pollsters?

Ask Google how reliable they are and you’ll come up with a myriad of answers.

Some sources, like the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, say yes, maybe, but.

The Wall Street Journal has said, in one article found on line that asked if political polls could be trusted, that they could be trusted quite a lot, but then attributed that response to “more than a few Americans.”

The Los Angeles Times cited a study done at the Pew Research Center, one of the country’s best-known polling operations, which it says “provides some reassurance … but also some questions.”

Keep searching, and the answers keep coming, but the one Eye on Greene likes best comes from Political Commentator Glenn Beck, who noted prior to the first 2012 presidential debate:

“Heavy scrutiny is being directed at the polls and the organizations that conduct and report on them. Many have been critical of the methodology behind the way many of these polls have been conducted … The mainstream media has not reacted well to the criticism …

“You’re going to have to do your own homework,” Beck warned his audience. “Just do your own homework on the press. Be very, very careful. And I say this about left and right. I say this about Libertarian and big government. I say this about me. You have to do your own homework. You have to know who you believe. Be very, very careful.

“Don’t ever take (the word of) somebody in the media, including mine, don’t ever take their word for it. I know I try to do my best. We do an awful lot of research. We get it wrong sometimes. We’ll correct it if we get it wrong. But it is still my research and my opinion. You have to do your own (research).”

Beck reminded his audience that recent polls showed that only 8 percent of people trust the media, and said there is a reason for that.

Posted in: Editorials

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