WashU Expert: The biggest upset since … 1936?

Harry S. Truman holding up the newspaper "Dewey Defeats Truman." (Photo: Truman Library)
Harry S. Truman holding up the newspaper “Dewey Defeats Truman.” (Photo: Truman Library)

“A Dewey Defeats Truman Lesson for the Digital Age” reads the New York Times. “AI May Have Just Had It’s Dewey Moment” Forbes concurs.

Peter Kastor. (Photo: Joe Angeles)
Peter Kastor. (Photo: Joe Angeles)

For political prognosticators, the 2016 presidential campaign has emerged as the most egregious “wrong call” since incumbent President Harry S. Truman defeated New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey in 1948.

“In 1960, the Kennedy vs. Nixon contest also was a nail-biter,” said presidential historian Peter Kastor, chair of history in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “But unlike the 2016 election, many people had predicted a close election and weren’t assuming a Nixon victory in the way that people were predicting a victory for Hillary Clinton

“The situation was very different in 1948,” Kastor added.  “Everyone was certain that Truman was going to lose, right up until the eve of the election. So the result was not just surprising — it was shocking.”

  • Closer to an FDR moment: Yet another interesting comparison can be found in the 1936 contest between incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt and Kansas governor Alf Landon. “Literary Digest, which had successfully predicted the outcome of the presidential elections in 1920, ’24, ’28 and ’32, predicted that Landon would defeat Roosevelt,” Kastor said. “Boy were they wrong! Roosevelt won the electoral battle 523-8.

“In the aftermath, it became clear that the survey sample was unrepresentative.  It was a crucial moment for the social science of polling. Of course, polling is far more sophisticated now, but that makes the inaccuracy of recent polling all the more perplexing.”

  • Batons dropped: Kastor also pointed out that no president has succeeded a member of his own party since George Bush was elected in 1988. “Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were all two-term presidents. All managed to win re-election.

“But none were able to deliver the office to their chosen successors.”

Editor’s note: Members of the media interested in interviewing Kastor can reach him by email at pjkastor@wustl.edu.

Read more from our experts on Election 2016.

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