By Andy Franklin, NBC News senior producer
In the end, the New Hampshire Democratic primary was a close race with a clear winner. Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama, 39% to 36%. But the outcome was a surprise -- an "upset" and a "comeback" -- in part because of the expectations created by the polls, commentary and press coverage in the days leading up to the primary, much of it wrongly predicting a double-digit margin of victory for Obama. The "experts" got it wrong, but it was hardly the first time.
The most famous case in point: the 1948 election of Harry Truman, a victory predicted by virtually no one except Truman himself. That year's false expectations were immortalized in the Chicago Tribune's famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline, held aloft on election night by the beaming president-elect himself. But the Tribune wasn't alone. Truman's expected political demise was conventional wisdom in the fall of 1948. Respected pollster Elmo Roper was so sure Republican Thomas Dewey would win he actually stopped polling in September -- almost two months before the election. That October, Newsweek published a poll of 50 of the nation's "leading political writers." All of them — every single one — predicted a Dewey victory. Dewey himself, a New York governor who had been running for president since 1940, was so sure 1948 would be his year that he ran an overcautious, overconfident, low-key campaign that never caught fire. Meanwhile, Truman was giving 'em hell, criss-crossing the country, drawing ever larger and more enthusiastic crowds at one whistle-stop after another. Something was happening out there, and almost nobody saw it coming -- certainly not the political and media intelligentsia of the time.
On Election Day, November 3, 1948, Truman beat Dewey, 49.6% to 45.1% (Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond got 2.4%.) It was an upset, a comeback, and a surprise. That night, Harry Truman made the hapless Chicago Tribune famous. Less well-remembered is an apology (masquerading as a gag) that appeared the next morning on the front page of the Washington Post:
It was a telegram sent to Truman by the Post, inviting him to a "crow banquet," to which the paper said it was inviting "newspaper editorial writers, political reporters and editors, including our own, along with pollsters, radio commentators and columnists." The Post said that everyone would eat crow and wear sack cloth, while Truman would dine on turkey and dress in white tie. As the "dean of American election forecasters (and the only accurate one)," Truman was invited to "share the secret of your analytical success." We don't know if Truman responded to the "invitation," but the Washington Post deserves some credit for stepping up to the plate with a little humor at its own expense.
It would be nice to report that everyone learned from the mistakes of 1948, and that those mistakes were never repeated. No such luck, as we were reminded again last night. Perhaps the best we can do is remember the still-timely words of vice-president-elect Alben Barkley as he welcomed Harry Truman back to the White House, two days after the 1948 election: "There is one thing that this election has demonstrated aside from any partisan or personal victory, and that is that the American people do their own thinking and their own voting on the day of the election." Amen, Alben.