"George, how many do I have?" he asked when he finished. Elsey added the figures—340 electoral votes. Elsey later showed the tally to Clifford, who shook his head in wonderment that the president could be so deluded.
Truman was overly optimistic, but not so much as Clifford and Elsey thought. "He did not think he would win," Elsey later recalled. "He knew he would win." At around 9 p.m. on election night, Truman told an aide that he was going to sleep and to wake him if anything "important" happened.
Obama partisans and McCain partisans can choose their lessons from the Truman story: a warning against complacency, final courage for a flagging campaign. No one has yet matched the feat. The next chance comes Tuesday.
Robert Schlesinger is a deputy assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report. He is also the author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters (Simon & Schuster, 2008).