Hardly anyone gave President Harry Truman a prayer of a chance to win his 1948 reelection bid against Thomas Dewey of New York. All the pollsters predicted a win for Republican Dewey. Professional gamblers gave odds of fifteen to one against Democrat Truman. Reporters were writing stories about the upcoming Dewey administration.
Truman was about the only one who believed he could win. In September 1948 he left Washington, D.C., aboard a railroad car named the Ferdinand Magellan for a whistle-stop campaign across America. In speech after speech, town after town, he told people why they should reelect him while the crowds shouted back, “Give ’em hell, Harry!” The Ferdinand Magellan traveled nearly 22,000 miles in all. As historian David McCullough points out, never before had a president gone so far to take his case to the people.
Three weeks before the election, Newsweek magazine published a survey of 50 political writers. Every single one thought Truman would lose.
On election night, November 2, 1948, Truman went to bed at nine o’clock. He woke up around midnight, turned on the radio, and heard a commentator assure the nation that Dewey would win. Truman clicked him off and went back to sleep.
About four o’clock the next morning, an aide woke the president to tell him that he was ahead by 2 million votes. “We’ve got ’em beat,” Truman said.
It was the biggest political upset in the nation’s history. All the professional pundits were left scratching their heads. The voters had gone to the polls, elected the man who refused to quit, and reminded the experts that in this magical place called America, it’s still the people who get to choose.