The Republican candidate for president was certainly a handsome man. People had to grant him that, if they were willing to grant him nothing else. Born in Michigan, he had made his bones as a northeastern governor, and there was no question that the man looked like a president.
The incumbent Democratic president was struggling. Having taken on the controversial issue of universal health care coverage early in his administration, he had lost his initial high approval ratings, and his party had been crushed in the midterm elections. Faced with stubborn Republican opposition in Congress, determined to deny the president any victories he could use as a springboard for the election, he had been unable to accomplish much of anything domestically since the Republicans had won the midterms. His major domestic accomplishment, an executive order to end discrimination in the military, had been met with howls of outrage on the right and resistance from the military brass, who claimed “unit cohesion” would suffer. His advisers had warned him that this move could cost him many of the states he needed to win the election.
The president was likeable enough, but sometimes he seemed to have a hard time making his case with the electorate. He was often unfavorably compared with the previous Democratic president, whose legendary ability to connect with the common people made him the most popular political figure of his day, even now, these many years after he had left office; the current president, compared with the last Democrat to hold the office, often seemed a bit wanting. Even the former president’s wife, a political legend in her own right, was more popular than he was.
Although the president had won some spectacular victories overseas, domestically he was floundering, and the people were ready for a change.
On the other side of the aisle, the Republicans were giddy. Their midterm triumph and the president’s continued struggles led them to believe it was a foregone conclusion that they would win the White House and Congress in the next election. The only question was whether they would nominate the favorite, the moderate northeastern governor who had run well but lost four years previously, or one of his more conservative rivals.
The truth of the matter was that the right-wingers did not trust this frontrunner of theirs, and they wanted someone more conservative. They placed their hopes in a far-right, Rust Belt Senator. But the conservatives were fractured, and the northeastern governor, though he was too moderate for the base, won the nomination nonetheless. Querulous conservatives, though unhappy with their nominee, grumbled a bit but fell in line. Any Republican, they felt, would be better than this president, and any Republican would surely beat him.
But certain problems began to emerge for the Republican candidate. Before long, it became clear that his personality, aloof and standoffish, was a liability. He was stiff and ham-handed, and even though he had been raised in the Midwest, he found it difficult to connect with the common people in that key region. (One of his contemporaries had remarked that he was the only man she knew who could strut while sitting down.) He also found, to his dismay, that he could not shake the record of the previous Republican president, whose economic policies had created the greatest economic disaster in recent memory.
The Democratic president, meanwhile, had begun to find his stride. After struggling for most of his administration to find his own voice, he had rediscovered himself on the campaign trail and came alive on the stump. What had once been considered an impossible campaign for the Democrats to win now began to show signs of hope, and the polls began to move in the president’s direction. Still, Republicans believed they would win. How could they lose, against this president?
When all the dust settled, the unbeatable Republican ticket had lost, and it wasn’t close. The Democratic president, to everyone’s surprise, had come back from the political dead and won comfortably, with more than 300 electoral votes. He had managed to win key states such as Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa and Nevada, all of which had been in doubt but had ultimately gone Democratic. His party had also reversed the Republican gains from the midterm elections two years previously as voters deserted the GOP in the final weeks of the campaign.
By now, you’ve probably figured out that this little tale was the story of the 1948 election featuring President Harry S. Truman and New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey.
What, you were thinking this story was about somebody else?