Joe Biden and Thomas Dewey don’t seem similar. When Dewey ran for president in 1948 (his second attempt as the Republican nominee), he was 46 years old. He had been a brilliant prosecutor and was the successful governor of New York, then the nation’s largest state.
Biden is 77 years old. He’s been in politics longer than Dewey had been alive when he ran in 1948. He didn’t distinguish himself during his brief legal career and has never been in charge of running a governmental entity.
Dewey was a man of firm principles. For example, during his the 1948 Republican primaries, he opposed outlawing the Communist Party, a position that went against the grain. Biden is a man of “fluid ideas.” Going against the grain has never been his thing.
Of Dewey, it was said that he looked like the little man on the top of a wedding cake. Biden looks like the great uncle who embarrasses himself at a wedding.
The similarities between Dewey and Biden reside in the nature of their runs for the presidency. Dewey, an early fan of polling, had a big lead in the polls over Harry Truman at this stage of the race. Accordingly, he decided, in effect, to run out the clock.
Dewey said very little about his plans for the country, relying instead of the vague theme of “unity.” Biden is taking the same approach.
Dewey went on the campaign trail, but with nowhere near the gusto of Truman and his famous whistlestop tours. Biden doesn’t get out much. According to Jim Geraghty, nine days into this month, Biden has delivered public remarks six times in four states.
Sure, we’re in the midst of a pandemic, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing President Trump’s campaigning down.
In fact, Trump’s campaign can be compared to Truman’s. Like Truman, and unlike Dewey and Biden, Trump is telling America where he stands. And he gives them hell, just like Harry did.
(The comparison doesn’t hold up outside of the campaigning context. Truman was a man of great personal rectitude. Trump isn’t. Truman had helped save much of Europe from starvation and communism through the Marshall Plan. There’s a good chance that Trump, an “America First” guy, would have opposed that plan.)
Like Truman, Trump has trailed in the polls this year, though not by as many points. The polls tightened near the end of the 1948 race. They seem to be tightening this year at a much earlier stage.
Truman defeated Dewey thanks largely to the votes of rural Americans. Farmers were beginning to hurt in 1948, but they saw Truman as one of them (he had been a farmer) and he campaigned hard in rural America.
Trump’s biggest strength is with rural voters. The rural vote doesn’t carry as much weight today as it did in 1948. Nonetheless, it was instrumental in Trump’s surprise victory four years ago.
There are, of course, important differences between the 1948 race and this year’s contest. There was no pandemic in 1948. Biden is building his campaign around criticism of Trump’s response and the high number of deaths from the Wuhan coronavirus. Dewey had no such issue.
Moreover, as noted, there are important differences between Truman and Trump in terms of personality and character. These differences don’t favor Trump.
Thus, we shouldn’t carry the analogy to the 1948 race too far. But I can’t think of another race that is as analogous.