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I Hear That Train A-Comin': Cameron Should Follow Truman's Whistle Stop Lead With Early Campaigning

04/07/2014 12:29 | Updated 02 September 2014

It appears from recent statements in the House of Commons and from Downing Street that the only vote David Cameron is concerned about is the Scottish independence referendum. While it's certainly an important matter that will help decide the future of the UK, Cameron should also be thinking about voters in another election battle: his own. While the next General Election is 10 months away, looking to the example of Harry Truman's 1948 Whistle Stop campaign as an example of how an embattled leader can get his message out to the electorate well before they head to the polls.

This time in 1948 was not kind to President Harry Truman. The Soviet Union started the Berlin Blockade, which cut off food, coal, medical supplies and all other road, rail and river traffic to East Berlin. The Communist takeover of China continued, while Communist forces also threatened to depose the Greek ruling party.

Things were little better back in the US. Franklin Roosevelt's former Vice President Henry Wallace leading a left-leaning breakaway of the Democratic Party on one of Truman's flanks, while the Southern Democrats (aka Dixiecrats') used the issue of states' rights to mask their racism as they too broke away from Truman because he supported civil rights. Later that year the States' Rights Democratic Party leader, Strom Thurmond, would outrageously declare that "there's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our swimming pools, our homes, and into our churches."

Truman could have waited until the autumn to launch his bid to beat Thurmond, Wallace and Republican candidate Thomas Dewey. After all, by mid October in his final election cycle, his predecessor, FDR, had only given two major speeches. But Truman was not beloved by the party faithful as Roosevelt had been, and wartime unity was a thing of the past. So the President used a speaking engagement at the University of California's Berkeley campus as an excuse to go on a "non-political inspection tour" of the Western United States. In fact, this "Shakedown Cruise" as one member of his new Research Division called it, certainly was political, with its aim being for Truman to share the main concepts of the Democratic platform from as many train platforms as possible.

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Heading out in mid June, Truman's train rumbled across thousands of miles of track - 9,505, to be precise. He delivered 76 speeches in 18 states in just 15 days and while some of those were to large audiences, most were to small groups who had gathered at train stations in small towns. Truman would come out to the rear platform of his armor-plated living quarters - which included a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and formal dining room - speak for a few minutes, shake a few hands, and then head on down the line.

During these brief speeches, Truman discussed conservation, reclamation and power projects in the West, the precarious situation in Germany, provision of low cost housing and government support for farmers. But he saved his most energetic words for the Republican-controlled 80th Congress, which he felt had blocked all of his party's major legislation just for the sake of obstruction. He warned that if people voted the same way as they had in the 1946 midterm elections, they would get more of the same inaction from another "do nothing Congress", which he claimed was "the worst we've ever had" (today's Democrats may have something to say about that.) Insulted, the man who many felt controlled that Congress, Ohio's Robert Taft (the son of former President William Howard Taft), complained that Truman was "blackguarding Congress at every whistle stop in the West." Rather than firing back at the man whose motto was "The duty of opposition is to oppose," the wily Truman embraced the "Whistle Stop" slogan, and took advantage of the outrage from the small towns he spoke in, whose residents were offended by Taft dismissing them as inconsequential.

By the time Truman returned to the White House, his campaign managers had learned valuable lessons for the autumn campaign, when Truman would travel a further 22,000 miles and make an additional 276 speeches. They realized that local organization was paramount, if the President was to avoid the humiliation of speaking to a half-empty venue, as had been the case in Nebraska. And they recognized that Truman, who had struggled as a public speaker when trying to read from the kind of prepared texts that Franklin Roosevelt delivered so naturally, when he could just speak his mind.

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To bolster the President's off-the-cuff remarks, seven young men holed up in the clammy Research Division office Washington D.C. were digging up facts on each of the 352 places Truman would speak in throughout the campaign - little nuggets that enabled Truman to connect with local audiences. This was a precursor of the modern political War Room, with the researchers using stacks of newspapers and government guides instead of the Big Data stats and social media apps of their modern counterparts.

The combination of the Research Division's diligence and Truman's indefatigable work ethic - which propelled him to deliver up to 16 speeches a day - was enough to turn the tide for the President when the votes were tallied in November. And he wouldn't have been able to overcome the double split in his party, foreign turmoil and a Republican "dream ticket" had he not got out to see the people months before the election.

While Mr. Cameron may not travel by train much these days, he should take heed of Truman's example, and that of William Gladstone, whose Midlothian Campaign was wildly successful. The gains of Labour and UKIP in the recent European Parliament elections should serve notice that waiting until spring 2015 to begin his campaign is folly. The British people want to know what he stands for, where the Conservative Party is heading, and how his ideas contrast Ed Miliband's and the impersonal medium of TV debates isn't the same as telling us face to face. If he wants to remain at 10 Downing Street, Cameron's own Whistle Stop Tour must begin now.