Democratic Party: Harry Truman (Missouri) and Alben Barkley (Kentucky)
Republican Party: Thomas Dewey (New York) and Earl Warren (California)
States’ Rights Party: J. Strom Thurmond (South Carolina) and Fielding Wright (Mississippi)
Progressive Party: Henry Wallace (Iowa) and Glen Taylor (Idaho)
Truman and Barkley: 24.1 million popular votes, 303 electoral votes.
Dewey and Warren: 21.9 million popular votes, 189 electoral votes.
Thurmond and Wright: 1.17 million popular votes, 39 electoral votes.
Wallace and Taylor: 1.15 million popular votes, 0 electoral votes.
Harry Truman’s reelection was by no means assured, given the rise of the Republicans during the 1946 midterms and Truman’s own unpopularity. The Republican Party took over both the House and the Senate for the first time in two decades and challenged Truman at every turn. Truman tried to shore up support with important Democratic constituencies, including blacks, labor, and the Jewish community by advocating for civil rights and pro-labor legislation as well as recognizing the new state of Israel in 1948. However, by the end of 1946, polls showed that Truman’s approval rating hovered around 35%.
The Democratic nomination process was even a struggle for Truman. The Democrats, eager to recapture the strong leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, recruited General Dwight Eisenhower to run as the Democratic nominee for president while moving Harry Truman to vice president. This arrangement was not acceptable to Eisenhower, however, as he declined to run for either party in this particular race (and he would later reveal himself to be a Republican). The Democratic platform began to include more liberal programs for federal housing, civil rights, and national health care.
The civil rights plank offended southern Democrats, whom splintered from the party and created a third party, the States’ Rights (Dixiecrat) Party with South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond as its standard bearer. Similarly, former vice president and Truman appointee Henry Wallace saw the Democrats heading away from the liberalism of the New Deal and ran against Truman under the Progressive banner. Wallace struck against Truman’s hawkish stance against the Soviet Union and his moderate approach to domestic politics. In the end, however, Truman was renominated and chose liberal Kentucky politician Alben Barkley as his running mate. The Republican Party nominated New York governor Thomas Dewey, a moderate Republican who took a more measured approach to campaigning than in his 1944 run. Dewey’s campaign consisted of generalities and attempts not to discredit the New Deal but to create a more efficient administration of its programs.
The two major campaigns ran rival “whistle stop” train tours across the country. Truman, aboard the Ferdinand Magellan, seemed to have a better grasp of the tour and gave speeches and hand shakes at every stop possible, ending up with over 270 speeches over thousands of miles of travel. Dewey, however, was not as prolific a speaker or campaigner, only giving a dozen speeches over a similar stretch and having one speech end with him berating a train conductor for jostling his car, showing his inability to control his public image. Truman’s public image, as a man of the people and a politician willing to get down to the basics, was lasting in the American public’s collective memory.
While many pundits and media members felt Dewey’s experience and mild manner were going to give him the victory over the unpopular Truman, the president was very confident and in the end proved everyone wrong. The famous image from the campaign over the last fifty years has been Truman’s smiling face next to a newspaper stating that “Dewey defeats Truman,” one of the greatest political miscalculations in American media history. The president, while unpopular to many, managed to keep enough southern states (outside the three won by Thurmond) and the political organizations within the party to give him a plurality of the popular votes and enough electoral votes to win. The mandate was not there for the floundering Truman but his challenge to the “do-nothing” Republican Congress resonated throughout the public.