Truman’s Unpredictable Strategy

With President Obama at the lowest levels of his presidency, commentators have turned to comparing his situation to Harry Truman – and encouraging him to be Trumanesque.  

A year before Truman’s re-election, he was down in the polls.  Indeed, his long period of low approval numbers was part of why pollsters got their predictions of the Truman-Dewey race so wrong

Truman was also blessed with exceptionally smart strategists.  In fact, perhaps the most brilliant political memo in American politics was written by James Rowe and passed along to Truman by his friend Clark Clifford.

This great work of political strategy can be read in full on-line via the Truman Library (pdf).

It is a work in part about key groups in the electorate.  Black voters were not then the stalwarts of the Democratic party that they are now, but the group had a strategy to move them to Truman.  Farmers were another key group, as were progressives. 

It is also a work about issues and about the conflicts between Truman and the Republican Congress.

The memo also identified Henry Wallace as a likely independent candidate and Thomas Dewey as the nominee of the Republican party.

From its analysis, it drew out a key strategic approach — for Truman to stake out a position on the left, to move left from the center — not to move to the center to pick up independents.  The combination of progressives, black voters, members of unions, and farmers who were hurt by Republican policies, along with the solid south — these would enable Truman to triumph.

The memo is clearly worth reading and admiring. Much of its analysis was correct. 

But, it is worth remembering — It also got something very big and very important wrong. 

The south did not remain solidly Democratic. The move to embrace civil rights policies pushed the segregated, white supremacist south away from Truman. Strom Thurmond was to run for president and, while he won about the same percentage of the vote as Wallace, he was able to win states and their electoral votes. (See this 1948 electoral college map, with Truman in red, Dewey in blue and Thurmond in green.) 

The loss of 39 electoral votes in the south not only made Truman’s win even more improbable, it shows the limits of even a brilliant strategy — and the twists and turns that beset any presidential race.

Obama’s current strategists do not today appear all that brilliant, as they have pushed away their base and run toward the center, which has not embraced them. Yet the upheaval of the 1948 race suggests that neither they, nor their opponents, nor the pundits of today can predict what will unfold by November 2012.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.