1948 and the Power of Incumbency

Truman was in a reelection battle somewhat similar to Trump’s. Here’s how he won.

Truman on Election Night 1948. Source: Library of Congress

Pundits have continued to discount the likelihood of a Trump victory in the 2020 election. After weeks of positive polling, Democrats are gaining confidence. Republicans have also begun to worry. On Monday, a story broke that several Republican sources were uncertain that Trump would even finish his first term in office.

As I mentioned last week, nobody should count Trump out until election night. Trump still has all of the benefits of incumbency. He may be in a difficult position electorally, but so were many previous two-term presidents. One of the most famous reelections in American history, that of Harry Truman in 1948, should serve as a stark warning for anyone currently planning Biden’s inauguration in January.

The 1948 election presented enormous headwinds for Truman’s reelection. Political unrest lingered from the end of the Second World War. Winston Churchill, the great British statesman and hero of the war, had been turfed out and replaced by a Labour government. The American Democratic Party had already lost by a landslide in 1946. Truman was trying to secure the fifth straight presidential term for his party, a feat that had only been accomplished twice in the nation’s history. He was not nearly as popular as his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, and had failed on many points of his agenda. Truman was also facing pressure from the nation’s anti-communists, who had detected numerous real and imaginary communist elements throughout the government.

On top of all of these factors, Truman’s party split. His decision to integrate the armed forces led to the loss of many Southern Democrats, one of the party’s pillars. The so-called Dixiecrat party ran its own presidential candidate and had obvious support throughout the South. Truman’s left flank detached as well. Leftist Democrats formed the Progressive Party and nominated Henry Wallace, a former vice president and a robust writer and thinker, for president. The previous two party splits, in 1924 and 1912, had proved disastrous for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively.

But Truman had a number of advantages that many pundits ignored at the time. He was running on a clear platform. Truman fervently opposed communism and fought to contain it. He supported an extension of the New Deal, known as the Fair Deal, which he had already partially enacted. Truman also took advantage of the generally unpopular Republican Congress, which he labeled the “do-nothing” Congress. Truman was an enthusiastic campaigner who could craft and hammer home a message much better than his main opponent, Thomas Dewey. He also took advantage of slow yet steady economic progress following an earlier recession and budget cuts.

Therefore, it should not have been a shock when Truman ended up winning the presidency by a significant margin, despite the Chicago Tribune’s assertion to the contrary. His experience shows that by and large, incumbents have the inherent advantage and will win reelection in most circumstances. Truman’s reelection should stand as a warning to all Democrats who are waiting eagerly for the next release of Biden poll numbers. Sooner or later, Trump will rebound, and his opponents should be ready.

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week. www.twitter.com/medlinwrites

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