Months before Nov. 2, 1948—the day masses of Americans would flock to the polls and actually pick their next president—pollsters and pundits told them who it would be. Three-time New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, a short, mustachioed Republican from Owosso, Mich., was expected to easily pluck the White House away from Democratic incumbent Harry S. Truman.
But Dewey didn't even come close. And that's what makes the election of 1948 the greatest upset and underdog story in the history of American presidential politics. In a campaign where the candidates toured the country by train spreading their messages, Truman persevered like the Little Engine That Could while Dewey sputtered and stalled.
When President Truman hopped aboard his dark-green railroad car, the Ferdinand Magellan, at Washington's Union Station in September 1948, the odds were stacked against him. Congress had flipped to Republican control in 1946. His own party had hesitantly nominated him but had split three ways, with Henry Wallace, a former vice president critical of Truman's handling of the Cold War, leading away the progressives and South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond steering the Dixiecrats and pulling away the South. And of course, Dewey had been consistently ahead in the polls.
But the president was convinced that if he took his message to the people, he would win. So Truman, with daughter Margaret and wife Bess—"the boss"—in tow, traveled 21,928 miles on a "Whistle Stop" tour in a blitz of fiery oratory. From Ohio to California, 30 states in all, "Give 'em Hell Harry" spouted off populist GOP-bashing rhetoric in almost 280 speeches from the back of his train. As he traveled, Truman tailored each speech to his specific audience, discussing labor in Detroit, mining in Colorado, and farming in the Midwest.
Platitudes. Dewey, on the other hand, generally played it safe aboard his Victory Special. He was winning, and he knew it, so his campaign's strategy over his 16,000 miles was to simply let Truman run himself into the ground. Dewey spoke in generalities and didn't take strong positions on the issues. "Don't let anybody frighten you or try to stampede you into thinking America is finished," Dewey said. "America's future is still ahead of us." With speeches like this, Truman was easily able to get away with saying that the gop stood for "grand old platitudes."
Then on Oct. 12, 1948, Dewey's train pulled into Beaucoup, Ill. As a crowd of 1,000 people surged toward the rear of the train to greet the governor, the train lurched backward. "That's the first lunatic I've had for an engineer," Dewey said. "He probably should be shot at sunrise," the candidate muttered into a microphone, "but we'll let him off this time since nobody was hurt." Lee Tindle, the 54-year-old engineer whom Dewey had insulted, was a 30-year veteran of the rails. "I think just as much of Dewey as I did before, and that's not very much," Tindle told an Associated Press reporter.
"Lunatic" ploy. Even without the aid of YouTube or television, word of Dewey's outburst spread, and Truman took full advantage. He praised his "all Democratic" train crew. Supporters wrote "Lunatics for Truman" on dusty boxcars. While Republicans touted Dewey's New York administration and his campaign for its efficiency, Truman's running mate, Alben W. Barkley, chimed in with a timely response: "The governor of New York showed his hand recently by advocating 'shooting at sunrise' as a cure for his conception of inefficiency," Barkley quipped. "We at the Democratic Party do not consider 'ruthlessness' a proper synonym for 'efficiency.' "
While Dewey was endlessly ridiculed for the incident, many believed Truman's chances to win the presidency were still bleak, even as crowds greeting his rail car expanded and as the race narrowed. On Election Day, the head of the Secret Service ditched Truman, assuming his next detail was Dewey. However, as election returns poured in throughout the night, pollsters and reporters realized they had been sleeping on the job. Truman's rhetoric had worked. He had won 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189.