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2014 Midterm Election's Billion Dollar Budget vs Harry Truman's 1948 Whistle Stop Shoestring

26/09/2014 13:35 BST | Updated 25/11/2014 10:59 GMT

One billion dollars. That's how much candidates for the upcoming US midterm elections have raised for their House and Senate campaigns. A billion freaking dollars! And actually, according to figures released by the FEC and shared by Opensecrets.org, that's rounding down. With more than six weeks to go until election night, the total might jump up to $1.5 billion. That's what it takes to take candidates around their states in nice air conditioned RVs and private planes, and, of course, to film horrendous TV promos (though they'll be hard pressed to beat Jeff Wagner's ad from the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral race). In the 2012 Presidential election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent almost $2 billion.

Rewind to 1948, before the days of super PACs, TV debates and, well, shirtless guys climbing out of lakes to drink coffee, and you'd find a completely different campaign cycle. Nobody likes to back a loser, and that's just what most journalists, politicos and pollsters thought President Harry Truman would be come election night.

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Thrust into the White House by the untimely demise of Franklin Roosevelt two years before, Truman had helped the Allies win the war in the Pacific with a decision no leader should have to make. Then he squared his shoulders as peacetime problems marched toward him, overcoming millions of workdays lost to strikes and taking two giant steps forward in civil rights by ending pay discrimination for federal employees and desegregating the US Armed Forces.

And yet the Southern Democrats (aka Dixiecrats) had broken away in protest of this civil rights program, rallying around J. Strom Thurmond, the fiery former Governor of South Carolina who declared that "there's not enough troops in the Army to break down segregation." The Democratic Party also split to the left, with former Vice President Henry Wallace calling for a conciliatory stance toward Soviet Russia and nationalized industries as leader of the Progressive Party.

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Meanwhile, the Republicans, out of power since FDR won the 1932 election, believed they would recapture the White House by putting debonair former New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey - who'd come closest of all GOP candidates to defeating FDR - and likable California Governor Earl Warren on a "dream ticket" that had the media fawning. In fact, more than two thirds of editors surveyed midway through the campaign believed Truman was done, a verdict backed up by Dewey's double digit polling leads.

So how bad did things get for Truman's finance team? Well, the President clambered on top of a chair at a White House fundraiser, and pleaded for contributions from a room of wealthy backers: "I am appealing for your help. Help to carry my message to the American people. We just haven't got the money to buy radio time. In Detroit on Labor Day we had to cut out one of the most important sections of my speech because we didn't have the money to stay on the air." The Chief Executive was certainly being truthful: despite Oklahoma Governor Roy Turner cutting a last minute check to radio networks so they'd broadcast Truman's Cadillac Square address, Truman had to edit his concluding remarks. But climbing on a chair to beg wasn't Presidential, his detractors scoffed, with Drew Pearson lamenting in his daily 'Washington Merry Go-Round' column that Truman looked "pathetic and alone."

The chair-top appeal did convince some donors to cough up, including two who gave $10,000 a piece on the spot. But the money didn't get the President very far, literally or figuratively. As his train car, the armor-plated Ferdinand Magellan, chugged into Oklahoma in the final days of September, Truman had reached the end of the line. Hearing that the Democratic National Committee was hard up, the railroads took a page from the radio network's playbook, demanding up front payment for fuel and other fees. The trouble was, the coffers were empty. For Truman to continue on his 31,000 mile Whistle Stop Tour that he had started in June and complete the rest of the planned 352 speeches (he gave up to 16 a day), it looked like he'd need an act of God.

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Or, in this case, an act of Roy Turner. The same man who had paid for Truman's Labor Day address now came to the President's aid again to get his train and campaign rolling again. Turner invited some rich friends aboard the Presidential car, which Truman's aides had jokingly dubbed "The Last Chance Special" after they heard that the press corps had called Dewey's train "The Victory Special." A glorified whip-round followed, and just like that, Truman's staff had the money to pay the railroad bill. The tireless campaigner continued his frenetic speaking schedule right up until the last day, when he slipped away to the Elms Hotel in sleepy Excelsior Springs, Missouri, and had a simple dinner fitting for one of the least pretentious Presidents: a ham and cheese sandwich with a glass of buttermilk. Unlike his team, who to a man thought Dewey was bound for Pennsylvania Avenue and, as a result, slept fitfully, Truman was well rested when a staffer woke him early on November 2nd. Despite the doubters, the haters and the cash crises - not to mention the infamous and erroneous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline on the front page of the Chicago Tribune - he had secured four more years in the White House.

Clearly, we're never going to go back to the days of a President begging from atop a White House dining chair or train platform, in either Presidential or midterm elections. Nor can big money be decoupled (train pun intended) from politics, even with meaningful campaign finance reform. So what does Truman's example teach us today, more than half a century on? That big donations are no substitute for people-focused policy, that flashy ads (even the good ones) are a poor second to voter interaction, and that sheer hard work and determination can sometimes be enough to win on election night. Even when you have to beg, plead and scrape to do it.