Skip to content

MICHAEL BARONE: Harry S. Obama? | Campaign 2012

August 17, 2011

Barone: Harry S. Obama?

by Michael Baron

Aug 17, 2011

U.S. President Harry S. Truman holds up an Election Day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which mistakenly announced “Dewey Defeats Truman” on November 4, 1948. (AP photo/Byron Rollins)

Pundits have lately been comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter, suggesting he is a likely loser in 2012. But my American Enterprise Institute colleague Norman Ornstein, writing in the New Republic, compares Obama to Harry Truman, suggesting he might outperform the polls and win.

It’s always helpful to be reminded that early polls may not be predictive and that opinion can change, as was the case when Truman won in 1948 and when Carter lost in 1980. But we should keep in mind that today’s polls are better and more frequent than they were 63 years ago.

Gallup’s last 1948 poll was taken between Oct. 15 and 25 and showed Thomas Dewey leading Truman by only 5 points. No contemporary pollster would quit eight days before the election after getting that result.

There are in fact major differences between Truman’s standing in 1947-48 and Obama’s standing today. Contrary to Truman’s “do-nothing” characterization of the Republican 80th Congress, it in fact did a lot. It repealed wartime wage and price controls, cut taxes deeply and passed the Taft-Hartley Act limiting the powers of labor unions.

None of those actions were reversed by the Democratic Congress elected with Truman in 1948. Many congressional Democrats in those days were anti-New Deal conservatives. Truman won many votes from Democrats still upset about the Civil War. Few such votes are available to Obama or congressional Democrats in 2012.

In addition, Truman’s victory was due to two “F factors” — the farm vote and foreign policy — the first of which scarcely exists today and the second of which seems unlikely to benefit Obama in the same way.

When the nation went to war in the 1940s one out of four Americans still lived on farms. The 1948 electorate still reflected that America. Voter turnout was actually lower than it was in 1940, and the vast postwar demographic changes were not reflected in elections until turnout surged in the contest between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

Truman promised to keep Depression-era farm subsidies in place and charged that Dewey and the Republicans would repeal them. That enabled him to run ahead of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 showing in 13 states with large farm populations from Indiana to Colorado and Minnesota to Oklahoma.

Without that swing in the farm vote Truman would not have won. Dewey, waking up to find that he would not be president as he and almost everyone expected, spotted that immediately the morning after the election.

via Barone: Harry S. Obama? | Campaign 2012.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: