A look back at presidential upsets

One of the biggest upsets in the history of U.S. presidential elections occurred on November 8, 2016.  Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton proved most if not all pollsters badly wrong in their forecasts.  Old Hartselle voters can remember 1948 if their parents were into politics.  At that time there weren’t nearly as many polls as there are now and the science of opinion sampling had not advanced very far.  As a result of the November 8 goof many are inclined to believe that it still has a long way to go.  For many years after 1948 when the party with which one was identified was predicted to lose a presidential election, supporters of the supposed second place candidate would regularly say, “Remember 1948!”  Fortunately, actual voting behavior is still not perfectly predictable.

Nov. 2, 1948—Hartselle’s small group of Republican voters are very much looking forward to listening to election returns on the radio tonight.   They can receive WGN (“World’s Greatest Newspaper”) out of Chicago very well as it’s a clear channel station.  These Republican loyalists are very confident that, after 16 long years of Democratic rule, Republicans will at last prevail.  They have a good candidate in Gov. Tom Dewey of New York, who ran the late President Roosevelt a good race four years ago, and they feel that the nonelected President, Harry Truman, will be a relatively easy man for Dewey to beat.

Nov. 3, 1948—The genuine Hartselle Democrats were jubilant today.  Despite virtually all predictions to the contrary, President Truman soundly defeated New York’s Governor Dewey.  Alabama had no role in the Truman victory, however,  because his name was not even on the ballot.  Instead, Democrat electors were pledged to South Carolina Governor J. Strom Thurmond, the States’ Rights or Dixiecrat candidate.  Thurmond will get Alabama’s electoral votes when the men chosen meet at the Capitol in December to formally cast them.

Before 1948 the election in which a major publication made a colossal error had occurred a dozen years earlier, in 1936, when President Franklin Roosevelt was running for a second term.  At that time, scientific polling was in its infancy.  Most opinion sampling was done in the form of straw votes taken by magazines and newspapers.  The following represents how the 1936 election results might have impacted Hartselle.

Nov. 3, 1936—Hartselle’s infinitesimally small group of Republicans are encouraged by the poll taken by a leading magazine to which many relatively affluent local residents subscribe, the Literary Digest.  The Digest has an excellent record with its mail-in surveys of predicting the results of presidential elections.  Although President Roosevelt is very popular here, especially because of the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Civilian Conservation Corps (a camp is located east of Hartselle), and other programs to alleviate intense Depression suffering, the high standing the President has must not be shared by many other Americans.  The Digest poll has Kansas Gov. Alf Landon defeating President Roosevelt.  This prediction is in spite of the fact that Landon did not even begin campaigning until he was nominated at the Republican National Convention back in the summer.

Nov. 4, 1936—The few Hartselle residents who could afford to continue their subscriptions to the Literary Digest will now in all likelihood cancel them.  They have lost faith in the magazine.  Not only was the Digest wrong in predicting that Governor Landon would defeat President Roosevelt, they were monumentally wrong.  In some counties, especially in the South, Landon did not receive a single vote.  (The Literary Digest ceased publication a short time later.)

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