Now that Philly will host the 2016 National Democratic Convention, I’m reposting an account of one of the more exciting times when the city hosted three conventions in the same year. The city last hosted a national convention in 2000, when the Republicans nominated George W. Bush. But in 1948, the city hosted three national conventions and Pennsylvania politicians were major players in the nomination activities. Below is an account of the decisions and activities at those conventions, and the role Pennsylvanians played in the 1948 election. Excerpts are modified from my 2008 book, Pivotal Pennsylvania: Presidential Politics from FDR to the Twenty-First Century.
At the beginning of 1948, few observers believed that President Truman was likely to win election to a full term. Truman had assumed the presidency after Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945. As often is the case, the American public warmly welcomed the new president. His approval rating as measured by a Gallup poll pushed 90 percent, but within a year it dropped to the low thirties. What happened?
Truman was handed two serious and growing problems, one a worsening economy and the second the expanding complexities of the Cold War. On the domestic front, when Truman ended the price controls that had been in effect during WW II, the resulting inflation fueled demands from unions that wages be raised. That in turn led to strikes in major sectors of the economy – steel, coal and automobiles. The new president twice ordered government seizures of the mines. Reacting abruptly and quickly in the face of a national railway engineer’s strike, Truman seized the rail system. Angry at the president’s action, a large number of labor unions deserted the Democrats in the 1946 midterm election, despite Truman’s persistent opposition to the Taft-Hartley Act, the 1947 law that Congress passed over his veto that placed restrictions on labor union power and activities.
With an economic slump in place, the Republicans captured both houses of Congress for the first time since 1938. The new Republican Congress made mincemeat of Truman’s domestic proposals.
Given this set of circumstances, a united Republican Party seemed likely to win back the presidency for the first time in twenty years. Sensing victory, Republicans had a bevy of possible nominees early in the year. Some favorite sons from 1944, including California Governor Earl Warren and former Minnesota Governor Harold E. Stassen were under consideration, but the major contenders seemed to be the 1944 nominee Thomas Dewey and Senator Robert Taft from Ohio. The conservative Taft, one of the party’s leading isolationists, was considered Dewey’s most important rival. However, Stassen, the most liberal of the Republicans (and later president of the University of Pennsylvania), won a series of primaries in the early months of 1948. This forced Dewey to abandon his strategy of staying quietly in New York and campaign actively for the nomination. READ MORE »