And The Winner Is . . .

This just in (Fortune magazine October 1948, page 29):

“Barring a major political miracle, Governor Thomas E. Dewey will be elected the thirty-fourth President of the United States in November. Such is the overwhelming evidence of Elmo Roper’s fifth pre-election Survey in recent months, the last that will appear this year in Fortune.

            “So decisive are the figures given here this month that Fortune, and Mr. Roper, plan no further detailed reports on the change of opinion in the forthcoming presidential campaign unless some development of outstanding importance occurs. This decision was taken only after careful consideration, and it is in keeping with the original objectives of the Fortune Survey. The Fortune Survey was established not to chart the week-by-week changes in public opinion but to uncover important underlying attitudes, the real sources of decisive changes in public opinion.

            “The findings of this current Survey come as no surprise. They merely reinforce and confirm the results of the four preceding public-opinion polls conducted between April and August of this year. All of them indicated that in the election to come Mr. Dewey will pile up a popular majority only slightly less than that accumulated by Mr. Roosevelt in 1936 when he swept the boards against Alf Landon. The results of the current Survey show no decisive difference from the four previous ones: Mr. Dewey is shown to be leading Mr. Truman by the almost unbeatable margin of 44 per cent to 31 per cent . . . Mr. Truman, in his uphill, desperate struggle for re-election, is swimming against a strong current. The people have pretty much made up their minds on the men, and thus the issues of the election take second place.”   

This just in (The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, October 19, 2012, page one):

“FARGO — Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Berg is leading Democrat Heidi Heitkamp 50 percent to 40 percent — with 10 percent still undecided — in North Dakota’s U.S. Senate race, according to a poll conducted for Forum Communications Co. The poll, conducted by Essman/Research, has Berg leading former Democratic Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, 50 percent to 40 percent. Ten percent of respondents say they remain undecided.”

            Below is a statement from Berg for Senate spokesman Chris Van Guilder from an October 23 press release:

“It is clear that North Dakotans continue to reject Heidi Heitkamp’s campaign of false and negative personal attacks and are focused on the big issues of this election. As Heitkamp continues to run a personal smear campaign, we are encouraged by the positive response to Rick Berg’s commitment to repealing Obamacare, standing up to President Obama’s failed policies, and working with Senator John Hoeven to balance the budget and put our country back on track.”

We know the rest of the story, of course. Truman and Heitkamp both won. There’s a lesson here, maybe: don’t discount the undecideds. Twenty five per cent in the Roper poll, 10 per cent in the Forum poll, and all (or most in Truman’s case) apparently went with the underdog. Or maybe the lesson is, don’t discount America’s feelings for the underdog.

This was all triggered by my coming across a copy of the October 1948 issue of Fortune magazine. And paging through it, I noted the Dewey-Truman story, and thought of the Heidi-Rick campaign. In both cases, the media outlet involved, Fortune and Forum, wanted the results their pollsters were predicting, and jumped ahead of their good senses to pretty much call the election for their favorite son. Fortune all but endorsed Dewey. The Forum endorsed Rick Berg. Both were pretty sure they were endorsing the winner. Both, of course, were wrong.

I am reminded of my very first election in North Dakota as a journalist. It was 1972, and I was working at The Dickinson Press. Shortly before Election Day, the editor called me into his office and announced that he was about to write his endorsement editorial for the Governor’s race, which featured then-Congressman Art Link against then-Lieutenant Governor Richard Larsen. He said something like “You seem to know a lot about North Dakota politics. Who do you think we should endorse?”  Well, I made a brief case for Art Link, although I can’t really remember the gist of it. He said “I think I’m going to endorse Larsen.” I asked why. He said “Well, this is my first endorsement, and I want to get it right, and I think Larsen is going to win. So I’m going to endorse him.” And he did. And, of course, he was wrong. Link won in an upset, and went on to become a North Dakota legend, perhaps our most-respected Governor ever. Truman, too, went on to become an American legend and a highly-respected ex-president. As for Heitkamp, well, we’ll see, but don’t bet against her ever again.

Memo to media outlets: Endorsements are okay, if they are done for the right reason. The right reason is not “Because I think he is going to win.”


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