Washington — The gap between Ronald Reagan and President Carter seemed to be widening, and the happy Republicans came to their Detroit Convention with glad news from the opinion polls. Victory seemed sure after the Democratic Convention in New York a month later, when the polls gave the California governor a clear lead over the renominated Democratic incumbent. But I have a word of warning for fellow journalistic political forecasters -- remember another election.
musty clippings I wrote for The Christian Science Monitor while traveling on the campaign trains of Harry Truman and Tom Dewey. And then I quietly put the clippings away again. And I blush.
That was the year when pollster Elmo Roper on Sept. 9 showed Dewey leading Truman by an enormous 52.2 to 37.1 percent and announced that he would do no more polling in the campaign. The tide was irreversible. Dewey was in.
That was the year that Dr. George Gallup stated, "Gov. Thomas E. Dewey will win the presidential election with a substantial majority of electoral votes."
That was the year Archibald M. Crossley, director of the Crossley Poll, announced in his final poll of Oct. 29: "Governor Dewey and Governor Warren are assured of election." He gave Dewey 49.9 percent; Truman, 44.8 percent, Henry A. Wallace, 4; Strom Thurmond, 1.6.
That was the year that U.S. News & World Report worried about the defeated Truman administration running the country between election day and inauguration day; that Life magazine carried a full-page picture of Governor and Mrs. Dewey captioned, "The next president travels by ferryboat over the broad waters of San Francisco Bay"; that Newsweek carried a survey of 50 leading political writers, every single one of whom forecast Dewey's victory.
That was the day . . . but why go on?
Political polls are all right and add a lot of fun to campaigns. They have practically taken over the business of picking the front-runner in the 37 primaries and do the work of the conventions before they assemble. A lot of journalists worry about their new participatory role in politics. And any reporter who has been burned by a poll has reservations. Opinion changes quickly in America. Things are different in the fall from the summer, particularly in those crucial last three weeks of October. And finally, the polls don't say how many will vote and how many will stay home. In 1948 only 47 million voters voted; almost as many more didn't. Polls measure numbers but not intensity. They indicate trends but not passion.
In June of 1948 I traveled with President Truman on a "nonpolitical" trip to the West. In a huge Omaha coliseum there were 10,000 seats and only 2,000 filled. At the candidate's peroration the motion-picture klieg lights that had pointed at him on the lectern suddenly left him and, like accusatory fingers, slowly traveled around the cavernous hall, across the empty aisles and vacant seats. It was as cruel as a slap in the face. Life magazine reported:
"The most impressive thing last week about President Truman's trip to the West was his incredible ability to pretend that nothing at all was going wrong."
The first question every reporter asked in joining the train was, "Does he know?" Nobody seemed to want to tell Harry that he was licked. Even critics had sympathy for the underdog. He was making a brave show. Some reporters call candidates corny today. They should haved traveled with Truman in 1948.
He explained that he was going out to California to receive an honorary degree, and all across the West his vernacular got thicker. He told about Grandpaw's covered wagon trip to Oregon and evoked an ancestor or two at nearly every stop. He spoke 15 or 16 times a day from the rear platform of the Ferdinand Magellan. He denounced the 80th Congress with more brilliant flights every mile; he uttered a memorable reply to Republican counter- attacks at Pocatello, Idaho: "They can't prove nothing; they ain't got a thing on me."
In those far-off, happy days of campaign specials the reporters normally produced some kind of theme song to memoralize the affair, adding phrases as speeches continued. I was present after Truman's speech at Davis, Calif., and saw inspiration strike lovable columnist Tom Stokes with what I shall always regard as the finest natural couplet in American campaign verse. Truman had just folksily explained to the crowd that he was going to Berkeley "for to git me a degree." The flash came to Stokes as he sat in a Pullman compartment composing the "Little Man's Ballad" to the tune, "Oh, Susanna." Why of course, there was the poetic relevance of the two key remarks:
They can't prove nothin', they ain't got a thing on me.m
I'm a-goin' down to Berkeley fur to git me a degree.m
We roared it out. There were endless verses. Members of the original party carried them to other groups. As I hum it now, it brings back the bounce of the train; the chorus shouted to the rhythm of the wheels; the problem of traversing a campaign train of 17 cars, which is about a third of a mile long, and of the sprinting back at the warning whistle that ultimately produced in even the most indolent reporter a lithe, lean look.
The whole campaign, it must be recorded, was informal, haphazard, and badly managed, one of the most hectic and inspiredly balmy affairs of modern times. There was the time Truman dedicated a local airport to the wrong person; press secretary Charlie Ross had mixed it up somehow. Under a 15-hour schedule Truman could be excused for verbal slips, including the mixed metaphor at San Diego that "your population is going to come to the saturation point unless you get some water to support it."
The mysterious thing was that while everyone on the train (except perhaps the candidate) knew the task was hopeless, the prevailing mood was lively and cheerful. At Dexter, Ore., when Truman had got his prepared remarks out of the way, he came back to the microphone and chatted with the shirt- sleeved farm crowd in a friendly, informal exchange. Without knowing how he did it, perhaps, he converted a hitherto bored and inattentive audience into a sympathetic entity of 50,000 people. They went away saying he was a game little cuss.
At Butte, Mont., one cool night, the loudspeaker failed and Truman was kept waiting half an hour; he cut loose from his prepared speech in an extemporaneous talk that stirred the pulse. That night in the press car a reporter stopped the clatter of his typewriter. "Trouble with Harry is," he observed thoughtfully, "he learned to read."
At about this time I switched to the Dewey special train. I wrote, "Governor Dewey is blandly continuing his chosen course which is apparently taking him straight to the White House." Oct. 14 I wrote, "It is now as certain as anything can be in the course of American politics that Governor Dewey is elected and the nation knows it. . . ."
Always, though, that undercurrent of queer omens. "A mild trend" was developing for the Democrats, I reported. I noted that "President Truman's savage attack on the Republican 'do-nothing' 80th Congress has had some effect."
What a relief it was to get back from the serenely condescending Dewey train. By late October even the most bemused reporter could feel that something was happening. Truman was campaigning like a house afire. He was getting immense crowds:
"Oct. 25. Mr. Truman had a spectacular turnout in downtown Chicago."
"Oct. 27. President Truman has swept into New England for a two-day campaign breathing hope and confidence. Accompanying reporters are sufficiently impressed . . . to revise earlier estimates. . . . An upturn of Truman stock is felt to be under way . . . that might change the result from a rout to a mere defeat."
All the evidence was ther and I wouldn't look at it. Who could doubt the validity of the polls? Nevertheless the Truman special rumbled on to enormous crowds:
"Oct. 28. He [Truman] has shown much ability, so far as this writer can judge, to communicate emotions of fear, rage, and similar political passions to his audiences."
"Oct. 29.The agile Mr. Truman was moving about almost every instant. . . . He made 15 speeches after leaving Boston. . . ."
"Oct. 30. Mr. Truman left New York after being seen by 2 million to 3 million persons."
Who could doubt the power of the press to sway an election? The trade magazine Editor & Publisher reported that 65 percent of the country's daily newspapers supported Governor Dewey, with 78 percent of the circulation.
The fact is, elections are often decided in the last three weeks of a campaign after years of preparation, and the feisty little Truman had finally got the attention of the nation.
Saturday Evening Post, Oct. 16, featured an article "What kind of a president will Dewey make?" by Joseph and Stewart Alsop.m
Came the moment of truth. The first returns on election night showed a curious Truman lead. Over the radio H. V. Kaltenborn and Richard Harkness attributed this to the cities: "When the rural returns come in, Governor Dewey will win overwhelmingly."
At 4:15 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, on election day, the Chicago Tribune distributed its city (one- star) final edition: "GOP WINS WHITE HOUSE." On the front page of the Tribune's "home edition," the headline read: "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN."m
Perhaps you have seen photographs of Truman cackling over a copy of the Tribune. Circulation men later tried to recall the edition, which was already selling for $1 each. What would the embarrassed paper do? It wouldn't concede. The last edition said, "EARLY DEWEY LEAD NARROW."
It wasn't till 11:10 the next morning that Democratic chairman McGrath read his final victory claim to the press. Horrified editors who had elected the wrong man in magazines already in the mails stayed up all night in various stages of shock. At Republican headquarters a reporter wrote that faces showed a slow-motion change from confidence to surprise, surprise to doubt, doubt to disbelief, and then to stunned fear and panic.
Subscribers received that week's Kiplinger's Magazine with a special 32-page edition entitled "What Dewey will do."m
Even 32 years later I look back and shudder. Quietly I put the crumbling clippings back in their folder. . . . The polls show Ronald Reagan leading Jimmy Carter, you say? I know one reporter who is going to make his 1980 forecasts after the votes are counted.