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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clinton No Dewey, Dole No Truman

It happens every four years. The presidential candidate who is lagging in the polls begins to have delusions of a late-season surge comparable to Harry Truman's remarkable come-from-behind victory over Thomas Dewey in 1948.


That was the greatest political upset in U.S. history, because no one -- the politicians, the press or the pollsters -- gave Truman the slightest chance of winning. When Newsweek polled 50 political reporters three weeks before the election, all 50 predicted a Dewey walk-in.


In the last few days of the current campaign, presidential candidate Bob Dole and his Republican lieutenants have summoned up the Truman triumph to suggest that history is about to repeat itself -- that all the experts and all the statistical data will again be proven resoundingly wrong.


It seems as far-fetched this time as all the other times. But some similarities between the 1948 and 1996 elections are worth noting, even if the political atmosphere is vastly different.


Dole, like Truman, is a plainspoken Midwesterner who is proud of his pioneer roots. He, like Truman, has been shaped by the values and virtues of small-town America. Both served in the great wars -- Truman in World War I, Dole in World War II.


Truman devoted his life to public service, as has Dole. Each made his political mark as an outstanding senator, respected and admired by Republicans and Democrats alike. Truman's gritty, never-say-die persistence enabled him to overcome the long odds in 1948. Likewise, Dole's steadfast determination finally earned him his party's top prize after two earlier failed quests for the Republican nomination.


Not all the comparisons are positive, however. Truman was renowned for his blunt, give-'em-hell style, but the reality is that he was never an eloquent or commanding speaker. Neither is Dole.


And, of course, the 1948 and the 1996 campaigns differ significantly. The 1948 contest was conducted by train and radio. Today, it is all television. The candidates did not meet face-to-face in 1948. Truman, in fact, never mentioned the name of his opponent.


Nor did he ever engage in the kind of personal attacks that have characterized Dole's speeches in recent weeks. Unlike Dole, who has been repeatedly frustrated in trying to find a winning campaign theme, Truman never veered from his initial strategy of relentlessly tearing into the Republican-controlled "do-nothing 80th Congress.''


Truman reveled in campaigning and showed enormous stamina, whistle-stopping across large sections of the country three times. He never seemed dispirited, and his friendly, folksy manner played well with the crowds who increasingly came to view him as a champion of the underdog. Those crowds, incidentally, became bigger and bigger as the campaign progressed.


In contrast, the more remote Dole rarely seems like a man who's enjoying himself. He doesn't always connect with voters, occasionally lapsing into Senatespeak and lately sounding more shrill. His turnouts often have been disappointingly small.


Dole's desperate attempt to persuade Ross Perot to abandon the race was a far cry from Truman's approach to the deep divisions that splintered the Democratic Party 48 years ago, which led to the Dixiecrat candidacy of Strom Thurmond on the right and the Progressive Party candidacy of Henry Wallace on the left. Truman simply ignored the rebels.


But the biggest difference between 1948 and 1996 is that President Bill Clinton is no Tom Dewey. Despite his big lead in the polls, the president has been campaigning hard right up to Election Day. Dewey squandered his big early margin over Truman by following a laid-back, leisurely pace marked by speeches filled with golden generalities such as "Your future lies ahead of you''. In late October, he even took a whole week off to begin preparations for his presidency.


How did the pollsters blow it so badly in 1948? For one thing, the opinion-taking business was not nearly as widespread or sophisticated as it is these days. The Roper Poll simply stopped quizzing voters in early September, announcing that the outcome was a foregone conclusion and a Dewey victory inevitable.


The Gallup Organization continued its monitoring until mid-October, but did not disclose the result until election eve. This final poll showed Dewey with a five-point advantage. But it completely missed a substantial swing of undecided voters into the Democratic column in the last two weeks -- enough to push Truman ahead.


Reporters, lulled into complacency by what appeared to be a certain Dewey victory, took their cues from the polls and stopped doing any real reporting. Accordingly, they ignored the rising enthusiasm for Truman and the huge crowds that he began drawing at almost every stop.


By election eve in 1948, the press was saying unanimously it would take a miracle for Truman to win. The echo of that prediction today is that Bob Dole needs an even greater miracle.





Paul Duke, moderator of "Washington Week in Review'' from 1974 to 1994, produced the PBS documentary "The Great Upset of '48.'' He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.