For McCain Supporters, Memories of Truman

For supporters of John McCain and Sarah Palin, the remaining hours of the 2008 presidential race are all about hope and Harry Truman.

Like Michael Jordan and Aesop's tortoise, the 33rd president of the United States has come to symbolize that most treasured of American traditions: the come-from-behind victory.

McCain himself invoked the patron saint of faint prayers in the closing weeks of the campaign, accusing Barack Obama of working prematurely on his inaugural address and suggesting that the draft might end up in the Smithsonian Institution someday, "right next to the Chicago paper that said, 'Dewey defeats Truman.'"

McCain isn't the first presidential candidate to reach for the Nov. 3, 1948 first edition of the Chicago Tribune.

In the final days of his 1996 White House run, Bob Dole took to carrying around a facsimile of the newspaper and referred to Dewey and Truman so much that voters might have thought he was running with them. ''I'm like Harry Truman," Dole proclaimed one day at a rally in Detroit. "I'm from the Midwest, and I'm plain-spoken, and I'm going to win whether you like it or not!''

Dole lost to Bill Clinton by eight percentage points and took a 379-to-159 thumping in the Electoral College.

Could McCain fare better? Yes, but not because "Dewey Defeats Truman" is a reliable predictor.

The problem with the historic analogy, historians will tell you, is that the Truman surprise stemmed in no small part from the fact that pollsters had packed up their bags several days, if not weeks, before the votes were actually cast. Having concluded that the race was over, the pollsters had mostly stopped polling - and in the process missed the impact of Truman's "whistle-stop campaign" and his denunciation of the "do-nothing Congress" in the election's final stretch.

That doesn't happen anymore. Real Clear Politics puts Obama's lead over McCain at 7.3 percent at the moment -- a number based on nearly a dozen different national polls, each of which was still in the field Sunday. While there certainly have been some squeakers over the last few decades, there hasn't been a big-time, last-minute presidential upset like Truman vs. Dewey since, well, Truman vs. Dewey in 1948. And when the pollsters have anticipated a landslide -- as they did for Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1985 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 - they've been pretty close to the mark.

Had pollsters in 1948 polled as intensively and as late as they do now, historian Alonzo Hamby says they might have seen Truman barreling around the corner. Anyone traveling with him would have seen a noticeable surge in the size of the crowds turning out for his campaign events. And in the last days of his campaign, Truman told his chief of staff precisely how he was going to win on a state-by-state basis.

Although Truman sometimes looms largest as a footnote in American newspaper history, McCain - like Dole, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and, indeed, Barack Obama -- has also summoned the ghost of the 33rd president for more substantive reasons. Out on the campaign trail, McCain has praised Truman as "a man of principle, of wisdom and a deep and abiding love for our country." Obama has said that Truman "embodied a lot of the wisdom of the Midwest." And President Bush - looking for some "Dewey Defeats Truman" magic amid his icy approval ratings - has held out Truman as a model for long-term historical vindication.

Truman's oldest grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, has heard it all before.

"When both sides are trying to portray themselves as being for the people, versus with the big government," he says, "I can imagine that [invoking Truman] is the temptation you won't be able to resist -- to ally yourself with the president who was the people's president."

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