It was October 13. The candidate of the out party seemed to be cruising toward victory. He projected an image of confidence, promising to restore national unity, and ignored his opponent. Then he made a little mistake. Veteran reporter Robert J. Donovan tells the story:
"As the [candidate] had begun to speak from the rear platform in Beaucoup, Illinois, his train suddenly lurched a few feet backward toward the crowd in what might have been, if the movement had continued, a serious accident. However, the train stopped quickly, yet [the candidate], momentarily losing his poise, exclaimed into the microphone, "That's the first lunatic I've had for an engineer. He probably ought to be shot at sunrise, but I guess we can let him off because no one was hurt.'"
The candidate was Thomas E. Dewey, who was running against Harry Truman in 1948. The most recent Gallup polls showed Dewey leading Truman 46 percent to 40 percent (September 23-28) and 46.5 percent to 39 percent (September 10-15). Truman seized on the "engineer" comment, and Truman backers portrayed it as an example of elite Republican contempt for the working man. The final Gallup poll, conducted October 15-25, showed Dewey still ahead 49.5 percent to 44.5 percent.
The story goes that Dewey encountered Dr. George Gallup during the campaign and asked why he didn't keep polling after October 25. Dr. Gallup replied that in his vast experience—which consisted of just three presidential campaigns, since the first Gallup poll was taken in October 1935—voters did not change their minds in the last weeks of the campaign. But in 1948 they evidently did. The Gallup polls may well have been accurate in reflecting opinion at the time they were conducted. But some things, perhaps including the lunatic engineer remark, evidently changed enough voters' minds to enable Truman to win, 50 percent to 45 percent.
The thought has struck me that Barack Obama's encounter on October 12 with Joe Wurzelbacher, Joe the Plumber, in Toledo, Ohio, might be a similar incident. Obama, like Dewey, has been leading in the polls and has been showing the same kind of serene, unruffled confidence that Dewey did 60 years ago. And his assertion that he wanted to "spread the wealth around" can be depicted as an example of elite contempt for the working man.
Obama, like Dewey, continues to be ahead in mid-October polls. But many of those polls look very much like the Gallup polls in September and October 1948. If you take out of the realclearpolitics.com average the CBS/New York Times poll, which looks like an outlier, and the less recent Gallup tracking polls (with their two-turnout version), the current average is an Obama lead of 49 percent to 43 percent. The average of the three 1948 Gallup polls showed Dewey leading 47 percent to 41 percent. The lower numbers in the 1948 polls reflect the fact that a few percent favored third-party candidates Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond.
In my U.S. News column this week, I asked whether Joe the Plumber could turn the election around. My answer is a firm maybe. John McCain has used Joe the Plumber to raise the tax issue and to focus on Obama's proposal to raise taxes in a time of apparent economic downturn. But the incident, like Dewey's denunciation of the engineer, shows the candidate in an unattractive light in an unguarded moment. The microphone picked up Dewey's words; Obama's were picked up, evidently, by a video camera. Technology changes, but politics is politics.
Do I think it's likely that McCain will overtake Obama? No. Do I think it's possible? Yes. Dr. Gallup was wrong when he said that voters never change their minds late in an election; sometimes they do. I've always been alert to the possibility they will, from the days I worked for political pollster Peter Hart. I remember writing something optimistic in a report for a candidate. Peter said, "Just remember how it will read the day after the election and your client has lost." Ever since, I've tried to stay alert to the possibility that opinion will change. Unlikely things sometimes happen, and a lot of them have already happened this year.