A lesson In likability: The tragedy of Thomas Dewey

Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate in the 1948 Presidential Election against Democratic nominee Harry Truman, is an archetype of the importance of charisma in winning elections. Before the election, Thomas Dewey had been a young, popular prosecutor battling organized crime, as well as a successful governor of New York. However, his stilted mannerisms and resort to triangulating platitudes over a concrete policy platform harmed his appeal to the general public.

Dewey had lost a presidential race to FDR four years prior, but voter polls at the time indicated that Dewey would have won if the United States had been at peace. Thus, the election of Dewey over Truman was considered a foregone conclusion by journalistic prognosticators of the era. Instead, Harry Truman obtained a shocking four-point plurality in the popular vote, won 28 states, and even improved upon Franklin Roosevelt’s performance among Catholics, Jews, and midwestern farmers four years prior. The iconic image of Harry Truman grinning with a copy of a newspaper proclaiming “Dewey Beats Truman” typifies the shock felt after the election.

In many cases, the closer one was to Dewey personally, the less likely that person was to vote for him. The issue of Dewey’s likability was such that the wife of Earl Warren, Thomas Dewey’s running mate, reportedly voted for Harry Truman for president. Her personal dislike of Dewey caused her to vote against a ticket that included her own husband. While Earl Warren would later become an influential chief justice of the Supreme Court, Dewey would die in relative obscurity in 1971.