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The Secret Weapon That Helped Win the White House in 1948 & Establish The Political 'War Room'

27/10/2014 12:25 | Updated 25 December 2014

On paper, it looked like Thomas E. Dewey was a shoo-in to win the 1948 election and return the Presidency to his Republican Party after 16 years of Democratic Party rule. He had come within two million votes of beating Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. Four years later it was not the iconic FDR he'd be facing or the wartime unity that he commanded, but Harry Truman, who was mired in misery at home and abroad. The Dixiecrats had splintered off in protest of Truman's bold civil rights program, while former VP Henry Wallace led the Progressives leftward with conciliatory foreign policy and plans to nationalize American industry.

Then there was the aftermath of postwar strikes that claimed millions of work days in 1946 and 1947 and isolated Truman from the unions after he took a hard line stance. The President almost didn't make it onto the ticket at all - the increasingly influential Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and several big name Democrats wanted Dwight Eisenhower instead, a push only halted by Ike's refusal to run. And abroad Communism was on the march in China, and pushed Truman to the brink when the Soviets cut off West Berlin from food, medical supplies and coal with the Berlin Blockade. No wonder polls put Dewey up to 20 points ahead of the incumbent and almost three quarters of newspaper editors in a September 1948 survey backed the former New York Governor to take down Truman come election night.

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And yet, somehow, Dewey lost the 1948 election and Truman claimed one the most unlikely victories in US history. So just how did the Man from Missouri pull it off? Well, there are a variety of factors, not least carefully targeted campaigning to black voters, farmers and blue collar workers, not to mention Truman's Herculean Whistle Stop Tour, which saw him give up to 16 speeches a day as he traveled 31,000 miles across the nation.

But a less obvious factor in Truman's win and Dewey's demise was the DNC Research Division. Holed up in small, airless offices above a building site in Washington's Dupont Circle, seven men beavered away day and night creating "Files of the Facts" - extensive dossiers on housing, civil rights, education and the other main planks of the Democratic platform. They then sent these to Truman's campaign team, who distilled them into bullet points for the President to review.

The real advantage that the seven journalists, city planners and policy experts provided wasn't macro level overviews, however, but localized details that any modern political "War Room" team would be proud of digging up. Using Works Progress Administration guides and local newspapers from across the country, the Research Division compiled talking points for each of the 352 places Truman spoke in on his June 'inspection tour' out West and the main Whistle Stop Tour in the autumn. As they were such a small group, the staffers were only ever working 48 hours ahead of Truman's train, which received new information when a runner went to the closet municipal airport to get new packets.

The specifics covered all the main election topics. Those who gathered in LA's Gilmore Stadium on September 23 found out that in 1940 only 5 percent of LA homes sold for more than $10,000, while eight years later, that figure had increased to 50 percent - evidence Truman used to call for inflation controls. A Winona, Minnesota audience that listened to the President on October 14 learned that, "Back in the Republican depression year of 1932, Minnesota farmers made less than quarter of a billion dollars. Last year, the income of Minnesota's farmers was a billion and a half dollars."

As well as feeding the President nitty gritty details, DNC Research Division head Bill Batt and his staff critiqued Truman's talks and provided suggestions for improvement. And it was Batt who pushed Truman's aide Clark Clifford to bend the President's ear on calling the "do-nothing" Congress back for a special summertime "Turnip Day" session in his Democratic Convention speech. And that's just what Truman did. The Congressman, spurred by Republican Robert Taft's assertion that "We're not going to give that fellow anything" passed no meaningful laws during this time, giving Truman even more ammunition for his accusation that the Republican-controlled legislative body was failing the country.

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In addition to helping shape Truman's narrative, the Research Division - who Truman's speechwriter George Elsey called "these bright, imaginative and energetic young men" - also paid close attention to what Dewey was saying, or, more often than not, what he wasn't. One of the reasons Dewey had secured the GOP nomination ahead of Taft is that he was considered a moderate who would be able to court independent voters as well as Republican loyalists. But on the flip side of that coin was the fact that Dewey's middle-of-the-road agenda placed him to close to the President's position on many issues. Batt sent the Truman team a memo insisting that Truman should take Dewey to task over his copycat campaign promises and the very next day, the President talked about his opponents "me too" speeches.

Truman was already in his element when talking to people from the back platform of his armor-plated Ferdinand Magellan train car - an apt name given the extent of the President's exploring in 1948. With the specific, locally-focused bullet points from the Research Division, he connected with voters even more effectively by talking about the issues they cared about rather than just offering the "Grand Old Platitudes" that Tom Dewey relied on. Truman may have won the election war of 1948 on the rails, but it's arguable that he wouldn't have without the verbal ammunition supplied by 'the Batt Group,' which was the forerunner of the modern day political war room.