“DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” – A case study in trusting the untrustworthy

Last week, I posted a commentary on the dangers of trusting polls and research derived from samples of convenience.  In this, the infamous 1948 Dewey-Truman election was referenced, in which the Chicago Tribune headlined that New York Governor and Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey defeated incumbent President Harry S. Truman.  The headlined letters were simple, and they were big:  “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”

Now, we all know that President Dewey went on to accomplish great and terrible things during his reign as commander and chief of the United States of America.  During his term, he helped establish NATO, fought the communist accusations and Red Scare of Senator McCarthy, sent troops to help with the Korean War, fired beloved war hero General MacArthur, and renovated the White House, thus ending his term with a dismal 22 percent approval rating.  Yes, President Dewey was indeed a controversial, both beloved and hated, president.  He is the talk of history classrooms throughout the nation!

Pardon the sarcasm.  In fact, Dewey never won the election.  Despite the Tribune’s headlines, Truman went on to win the electoral vote 303-189, and democrats regained the House and Senate.  After I posted this reference in last week’s post, I slowly began to realize, with the help of a fellow colleague, that perhaps not everyone remembers or knows about this infamous blunder.  And lest we forget, as history is forgotten, so it repeats itself.  So I am doing my part to help such disasters (though comedic as they are) from repeating themselves.

Some have claimed that this blunder was a result of conservative bias within the Tribune, but what underlay this was more so trusting inaccurate exit polling and data sources.  Such controversies have occurred since (namely the Bush-Gore election of 2000), but whereas the media were blame for lax voting in these instances, this was a product of trusting untrustworthy data.

A cautionary tale, to be sure, and one we can still learn from.  I can assure you that newspaper editors joke about this incident to others, but deep inside under locked doors they fear that their own paper may fall victim to such missteps.  Organizations and businesses should take heed as well, as trusting data that is not gathered accurately can lead to decisions that are not in the best interest of your organizations.

And for posterity’s sake, let us once again be reminded of this infamous photograph (Truman taunting the media the day after his victory as he boards a train in St. Louis). 

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