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'When you're leading, don't talk': The hazards of glide-path campaigning

'When you're leading, don't talk': The hazards of glide-path campaigning
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The “Dewey defeats Truman” upset election of 1948 is endlessly fascinating, an enthralling morality tale about the cockiness of pollsters, the credulity of journalists, and the hazards of glide-path campaigning.

Pollsters were confident that Thomas E. Dewey would unseat President Harry Truman — so confident that one of them, Elmo Roper, stopped releasing poll results in early September 1948, saying he was turning attention to “more valuable considerations.” 

As is their wont, journalists took their lead from the polls, which showed Dewey comfortably ahead. In fact, some syndicated columnists wrote commentaries about what to expect from the Dewey administration — commentaries that appeared in print the day after the election, which Truman won by 4.5 percentage points.

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News accounts in the aftermath identified Dewey’s unruffled, above-the-fray campaign as a factor in his defeat. Of course, few presidential elections turn on a single miscalculation, and other dynamics helped bring about Dewey’s defeat. Republicans, for example, may have believed too readily in the polls and thus felt little urgency to turn out on Election Day. But Dewey’s standoffish personality did not serve him well. That and his low-risk strategy loomed large. 

Other presidential candidates have pursued the smooth-glide approach. Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden Florida heat sends a dozen Trump rally attendees to hospital Harris more often the target of online misinformation than Pence: report MORE, who of late has rarely ventured beyond his basement in Delaware, is the most recent. Richard Nixon nearly lost a sizable polling lead, and the 1968 election, by sidestepping controversial issues, notably the war in Vietnam. Even so, Dewey’s “tread-lightly campaign” was exceptional in American presidential politics.

There was good reason why he seemed so far ahead in the summer and fall 1948. Truman, after all, was an accidental president who became chief executive on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. Many pundits believed that Truman was not up to the job, unable to hold together the Democratic Party. It was in disarray in 1948: Segregationist Dixiecrats and left-wing progressives both broke away, threatening to drain votes from Truman. What’s more, Republicans had won Congress in 1946, which in those days was a favorable omen about which party would win the White House in the subsequent election. 

Dewey, for all his personality flaws, was an effective district attorney and later governor of New York. In 1948, he was midway through the second of three successive gubernatorial terms. He had come closer than any Republican presidential candidate to defeating Roosevelt, losing in 1944 by 7.5 points. George Gallup, of the eponymous polling firm, admired Dewey as an exceptionally capable public figure. 

Gallup’s pre-election polls showed Dewey consistently, even securely, ahead. So, too, did surveys conducted by Roper and Archibald Crossley. Given the favorable polls, discord among the Democrats, and other perceived advantages, Dewey embraced the glide-path strategy. He tried not to stir up controversy, believing that would cost him votes. “When you’re leading, don’t talk,” his biographer quoted Dewey as having told a supporter.

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The cool efficiency of Dewey’s electioneering was admired by reporters aboard his campaign train, the “Victory Special.” It was all “slick and snappy,” wrote Richard Rovere of the New Yorker. But in substance, the campaign was mostly hollow. Dewey skipped lightly over the issues, offering up platitudes and generalities. “America’s future … is still ahead of us,” was one of his vague assertions. Bringing “unity” to America was another.

Dewey did not mention Truman by name. He “never even used the words ‘Democratic opponent’ or ‘my opponent,’” according to a Nov. 5, 1948, article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was as if Dewey, a mechanical candidate with an odd little mustache, was just marking time to Election Day, acting almost as if he were president-elect.

In contrast to Dewey’s tread-lightly approach, Truman’s campaign was focused, energetic, always on the offensive, frequently targeting the “do nothing” Republican-controlled Congress. Truman traveled more extensively than Dewey, making hundreds of speeches in small towns and large cities on exhausting, cross-country tours by rail. David McCullough’s award-winning biography, “Truman,” noted that the president “had just one strategy — attack, attack, attack, carry the fight to the enemy’s camp. He hammered the Republicans relentlessly” on issues such as declining prices for farm crops and accused them of an “unholy alliance” with big business that drove up costs of living. 

Voters, Truman said on the stump, “are entitled to hear more than sweet lullabies, which is what they’re getting from Republican candidates,” The Associated Press reported. The president spoke colorfully, if not always well; Rovere of the New Yorker said Truman’s speeches had “about as much flow as oatmeal.” Dewey, who spoke in a cultivated baritone, almost never took off the gloves, even when he sensed his audiences were turning indifferent. Late in the campaign, Dewey ordered a showing of newsreels about his campaigns, images that confirmed what today would be called “an enthusiasm gap.” But even then, he and his advisers decided not to change tactics.

On the eve of the election, polls suggested that Dewey’s glide-path approach had been effective. Roper’s final prediction placed Dewey ahead by 15 percentage points. Gallup estimated Dewey’s lead at 5 points, as did Crossley. The margins in the polls had narrowed, but not enough to alter the expected outcome. So the pollsters thought. Gallup’s final pre-election report declared: “Gov. Dewey will win the presidential election with a substantial majority of electoral votes.” He didn’t come close.

Truman rolled up 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189; Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond won 39 electoral votes.

It was an epic polling failure that Gallup privately called traumatic. Roper, whose prediction missed by nearly 20 points, expressed utter bafflement. “I could not have been more wrong,” he said. “I don’t know what happened.”

In conceding the election, Dewey made clear he would never again seek the presidency. Reporters asked him whether the pollsters’ data had lulled his campaign into complacency. “I don’t want to comment on anyone else’s misfortunes,” he replied, blandly.

Decades later, Dewey’s failed campaign offers enduring lessons about the seductiveness of pre-election polls, about the perils of running a campaign fueled by overconfidence, and about the necessity of a presidential candidate’s offering an affirmative and compelling case for election.

The election of 1948 may hold lessons for Biden, who seems disinclined to risk making gaffes, for which he is notorious. The cautious strategy may work, by keeping the focus on President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked by platform's pre-election blackout Mnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' Harris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden MORE and deflecting attention from Biden’s liabilities. But Dewey’s experience suggests that may not be a winning strategy. 

W. Joseph Campbell is a professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C., and author of the forthcoming book, “Lost in a Gallup: Polling Error in Presidential Elections” (University of California Press). Follow him on Twitter @wjosephcampbell.