September 2019 update: 2020 Democratic presidential nomination scenarios and general election polling

With the third Democratic presidential nomination debate set for September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas, it is time for an updated assessment of the relative position of the now-20 declared candidates. The more stringent criteria to qualify for this debate—the first to be held on only one night—presaged the end for three more campaigns. Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced on August 21 he would attempt instead to win a third term as governor. United States House of Representatives (“Representative”) member Seth Moulton of Massachusetts dropped out on August 23 (to seek reelection to his House seat), followed by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on August 28. The six candidates who have thus far abandoned their quest to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee all exited the race with grace, class and dignity, and I commend them for it.

To learn how I calculate the value I assign to each candidate, NSW-WAPA (national-and-state-weighted weighted-adjusted polling average), please see here[1]. I recently made two other methodological changes. One, I now treat as distinct polling entities two sets of ABC News/Washington Post national-level polls of the 2020 Democratic nomination contest: 1) Two polls, conducted January 21-24 and April 22-25, of adults only which simply asked respondents to name their first choice (as opposed to being read a list of names and being asked to choose one) and 2) two more recent polls (June 28-July 1, September 2-5) which used a list of names. Two, as of their poll conducted August 24-27, I am now using the “likely voters” version of the Harris X tracking poll; I treat these as coming from a distinct “pollster” than the “registered voters” version.

And, of course, here is the September 2019 lighthouse photograph in my Down East 2019 Maine Lighthouses wall calendar.

Sep 2019 lighthouse.JPG

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I begin with a heartfelt methodological apologia.

While conducting the “post-first-debate-polls-only” analysis I discuss below, I noticed a significant glitch in how I weighted polling within distinct polling firms. I was also not incorporating more recent national polls correctly. The combined effect was to lower every candidate’s final NSW-WAPA (thus) at most 1.7 percentage points (“points”), while increasing the “Don’t Know/Other” value 4.6 points. However, the relative ordering of the candidates and the spacing between them was unaffected.

Even so, it is an embarrassing error on my part, and I apologize.

Table 1 below aggregates data from all national and state-level polls publicly released since January 1, 2019 (as of 12 am EST September 12, 2019), including:

  • 178 national polls (including 36 weekly Morning Consult tracking polls)
  • 21 Iowa caucuses polls
  • 25 New Hampshire primary polls
  • 6 Nevada caucuses polls
  • 19 South Carolina primary polls
  • 43 Super Tuesday polls[2]
  • 36 polls from 15 other states.[3]

This makes a total of 328 polls, up from 293 in the last update.

Table 1: National-and-state-weighted WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Post-SC NSW-WAPA
Biden 29.0 24.9 23.8 28.6 40.3 27.8 28.7
Sanders 16.2 16.6 19.5 19.9 14.3 15.8 17.4
Warren 13.0 14.9 15.5 17.5 10.5 14.2 14.5
Harris 8.8 10.1 8.6 8.0 10.8 9.1 9.3
Buttigieg 5.3 9.6 8.9 6.5 5.3 6.3 7.5
O’Rourke 3.3 2.8 2.6 2.6 1.9 6.5 2.7
Booker 2.3 2.6 1.6 1.6 3.7 1.6 2.3
Klobuchar 1.2 2.8 1.0 1.0 0.7 1.0 1.5
Yang 1.4 0.8 1.9 1.5 0.9 0.9 1.2
Gabbard 0.8 0.8 2.0 1.2 0.4 0.7 1.1
Castro 1.0 0.8 0.2 1.2 0.2 1.4 0.70
Steyer 0.2 0.1 0.5 2.1 0.5 0.2 0.65
Delaney 0.3 1.0 0.6 0.00 0.4 0.2 0.49
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.4 0.2 0.4 0.28
Williamson 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.4 0.4 0.1 0.28
Ryan 0.3 0.1 0.2 0.4 0.3 0.2 0.23
de Blasio 0.3 0.1 0.00 0.6 0.1 0.1 0.19
Bullock 0.3 0.4 0.00 0.2 0.1 0.1 0.17
Sestak 0.02 0.1 0.00 0.2 0.00 0.1 0.07
Messam 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.1 0.04 0.03
DK/Other 13.9 9.6 11.4 4.7 7.6 12.3 9.5

The race has settled into a kind of stasis following the first two rounds of debates. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the frontrunner (28.7), primarily because of his 26-point lead in South Carolina primary polls. However, he is less strong in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the candidates battling for second place overall, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (17.4) and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (14.5), are even closer to first place. Rounding out a clear top five, both overall and in the four earliest states, are California Senator Kamala Harris (9.3) and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (7.5). These five candidates account for over three-quarters (77.4%) of Democratic voter preferences at this point, and the conventional wisdom is the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee will be one of them.

In the next tier are candidates with NSW-WAPA between 1.0 and 3.0 who could yet rise in the polls with strong debate performances: former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard. Of this group, only Gabbard did not qualify for the September 2019 debate, though may yet meet the criteria for the fourth round of Democratic presidential nomination debates (October 15 and possibly October 16). Just behind Gabbard, essentially tied for 11th place, are former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and billionaire activist Tom Steyer; Castro is the 10th and final September 2019 debate qualifier, while Steyer has already qualified for the October 2019 debate(s).

These 12 candidates total 87.0% of Democratic voter preferences. With 9.5%[4] undecided or choosing an unlisted candidate, the remaining seven candidates are divvying up just 3.5% between them; as none of them appears close to making the October 2019 debate(s), I expect them to end their campaigns by the end of 2019.

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Because I have been playing them out in my head, I will sketch out some likely nomination-winning scenarios at this point; as these are purely thought experiments, they should not be taken as predictions. These scenarios incorporate additional information like endorsements, my own study of the presidential nomination process[5] and the data in Table 2, derived only from polls that began on June 28, 2019 or later (i.e., after the first round of debates; n=137).

Table 2: National-and-state-weighted WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates—starting date of poll June 28, 2019 or later

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Post-SC NSW-WAPA
Biden 27.8 23.8 21.9 26.1 38.5 26.2 27.0
Sanders 15.9 14.5 19.8 21.4 15.0 15.3 17.3
Warren 15.4 18.7 19.0 19.0 12.0 16.7 17.2
Harris 9.2 12.2 10.2 8.2 12.9 10.0 10.8
Buttigieg 5.0 9.3 9.1 5.3 4.7 5.4 7.0
Booker 2.1 2.0 1.6 1.2 3.2 1.3 1.9
O’Rourke 2.4 1.4 1.2 1.8 1.0 6.2 1.9
Yang 1.9 1.0 2.4 1.3 0.9 1.1 1.4
Gabbard 1.0 0.9 2.6 1.3 0.5 0.9 1.3
Klobuchar 1.1 2.5 1.2 0.9 0.7 0.6 1.3
Steyer 0.4 0.02 0.7 3.4 0.9 0.3 1.0
Castro 1.1 0.7 0.3 1.4 0.2 1.4 0.75
Delaney 0.3 0.8 0.6 0.00 0.7 0.2 0.52
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.4 0.5 0.3 0.5 0.38
Williamson 0.5 0.1 0.6 0.3 0.5 0.2 0.36
de Blasio 0.4 0.3 0.00 0.9 0.1 0.1 0.28
Ryan 0.4 0.00 0.00 0.6 0.5 0.2 0.25
Bullock 0.3 0.5 0.00 0.3 0.2 0.2 0.24
Sestak 0.03 0.1 0.00 0.4 0.00 0.1 0.11
Messam 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.1 0.01
DK/Other 13.7 9.6 7.2 3.8 6.0 12.2 7.8

The top five remains the same (and combine for a slightly higher 79.3%), though Biden and Buttigieg are lower, while Sanders, Harris and, especially, Warren are higher.  The next tier of seven candidates is closely bunched together between 0.7 and 1.9. And a slightly smaller percentage (7.8) are undecided or prefer a different candidate.

But the real differences may be seen in Iowa, where Warren is now a close second to Biden, and New Hampshire, which is essentially a three-way tie between Biden, Sanders and Warren; Nevada is similar, with Biden slightly further ahead—and Steyer has his best showing (3.4) by far. Gabbard (2.6) and Yang (2.4) are similarly rising in New Hampshire.

In these scenarios I assume two things:

  1. Results in the four early states will continue to have an outsized impact on all subsequent contests,
  2. Candidates not finishing in the top five in any of Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina will end their campaign before March 3, 2020

Scenario 1: Biden wins easily.

This is the most obvious scenario: the front-runner wins. Biden has consistently led national and most state polls. He leads Harris in endorsement “points,” though relatively few Democratic party officials have endorsed a candidate. He is winning the “Hillary Clinton 2016 coalition”: older, moderate/conservative and black Democrats. And even after two shaky debate performances, Biden is still nearly 10 points ahead of Sanders and Warren overall in the most recent polling—and about five points ahead in the leadoff Iowa caucuses.

In this scenario, Biden wins the Iowa caucuses by closer to 10 points, with Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg splitting the votes of whiter, younger, more liberal Democrats, and Harris a distant fifth; no other candidate is close. Biden, who lately has been downplaying his chances in the early states, looks like the winner he was presumed to be.

Klobuchar, who had pinned everything on Iowa, drops out of the race and endorse Biden (instead of a Senate colleague or the untested Buttigieg). This, along with support from supporters of former candidates, breaks the logjam in New Hampshire. Biden wins there in the high single digits as Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg continue to split the not-Biden vote between them. Nevada becomes an afterthought (allowing Steyer to finish a surprising fourth), as all eyes turn to South Carolina—where Biden wins easily.

After the remaining candidates make their last stands on Super Tuesday (Warren in Massachusetts; Harris, Yang, Steyer and Gabbard in California; O’Rourke and Castro in Texas), Biden wins the majority of delegates awarded that day, after which only Sanders and Warren are serious challengers. Uncommitted officials, sensing a chance to focus on President Donald J. Trump, quickly coalesce behind Biden. He effectively wraps up the nomination on April 28, when he trounces Sanders and Warren in the Pennsylvania primary, the state where he was born, and whose southern neighbor (Delaware) he served in the Senate for 36 years.

Scenario 2: Warren’s early state strength vaults her to the nomination.

This is essentially the inverse of Scenario 1 and, to my mind, about equally as likely. Warren wins the Iowa caucuses because her far-more enthusiastic supporters show up to a caucus site on a Monday night in early February. Biden’s supporters, however, do not caucus in expected numbers, and he finishes a disappointing third, behind Sanders and barely ahead of Buttigieg and Harris. Booker finishes a surprisingly strong sixth, thanks to a core of enthusiastic supporters, though it is still disappointing. Nobody else is even close; Klobuchar again drops out of the race, though this time she endorses Warren. Harris, meanwhile, focuses on doing well in South Carolina and California.

Sensing a winner, supporters of other “liberal” candidates break for Warren, who edges out Sanders to win the New Hampshire primary; Biden actually finishes third behind Buttigieg. Yang and Gabbard finish higher than expected, but not enough to garner any momentum. Warren then makes it three-for-three in Nevada, as even some Sanders voters caucus for her; Biden finishes fourth, behind a surprisingly-strong Steyer.

In a matter of days, the very core of Biden’s appeal—his “electability”—is irreparably damaged. He still wins the South Carolina primary on the strength of moderate/conservative Democrats alarmed by the one-two punch of Warren and Sanders; pragmatic black Democrats split their votes between Biden, Harris and Warren (with a smattering for Booker), who finish in that order.

Just prior to Super Tuesday, though, Booker, Buttigieg, Castro and Yang—all eyeing the vice-presidential nomination—drop out of the race and endorse Warren. As a result, on Super Tuesday, besides her home states of Massachusetts, Warren wins Colorado, Minnesota and, in a narrow upset, Virginia. Biden wins the southern states of Alabama, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee, but by smaller margins than expected.

Texas is an inconclusive muddle, with Biden, Warren and O’Rourke battling for first place (roughly in that order)—but the game-changer is California. On the strength of white liberals (who have broken decisively from Sanders, especially women) and a slight plurality of LatinX voters, and with Biden and Harris splitting the black vote between them, Warren wins the California primary.

Harris, O’Rourke and Steyer see the writing on the wall and drop out, endorsing Warren. Gabbard also drops out, but chooses to endorse Sanders instead.

It is now effectively a two-person race between Biden and Warren, the clear front-runner. Sanders soldiers on, despite not having won a single contest, though his percentages languish around 10-15%, just enough to win some delegates here and there.

Biden continues to win primaries in the south (including the Florida primary on March 17) with Harris and Booker out of the race, but his only win outside the south is Ohio on March 10. Making his last stand in Pennsylvania, his high-single-digit win is deemed a disappointment. Warren then wins the Indiana primary on May 3, effectively wrapping up the nomination.

Scenarios 1a and 2a: Biden and Warren split the early states

It is highly plausible that Biden wins Iowa and South Carolina, while Warren wins New Hampshire and Nevada. Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg survive to battle on Super Tuesday, but Warren ends up winning California (as just enough Harris supporters instead vote for Warren), while Biden wins Texas (with O’Rourke a distant third). Sanders soldiers on, but it would once again be a Biden-Warren race. Given his base of support, Biden would probably be the slight favorite in this scenario.

In fact, nearly every scenario I game out ends up with either Biden or Warren as the nominee. There are, however, some entertaining (if less likely) exceptions:

Scenario 3: Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire

This is essentially 2016 all over again (Sanders barely lost Iowa before a landslide win in New Hampshire), except with three or four other viable candidates instead of one.

In this scenario, Biden and Warren begin to attack each other directly in the September and October debates, ultimately depressing turnout for both as voting begins in February 2020. The beneficiary is Sanders, who suddenly appears to be the sage elder statesman (and whose head-to-head polling numbers against Trump cause a second look at his candidacy): his loyal supporters push him over the top in Iowa—ahead of a surprisingly-strong Buttigieg, who picked up many disgruntled Biden and Warren voters. Harris also benefits, essentially tying the latter two for third place.

New Hampshire now becomes a battle between Sanders and Buttigieg, with Harris focusing on South Carolina and California. Once again, New Hampshire supports the familiar neighbor, though Buttigieg again makes it surprisingly close.

And national Democrats get very nervous, despite those head-to-head polls.

Ignoring Nevada (which Sanders wins easily), and taking solace in the prospect of a solid, historic ticket to go against Trump and Vice President Mike Pence[6], they rapidly and tactically endorse Harris and Buttigieg. Having finished no higher than sixth in any of the first three contests, every other candidate drops out and endorses either Harris or Buttigieg (except Williamson and Gabbard, who back Sanders).

Biden and Warren fight on, but with their candidacies fatally damaged, Harris wins South Carolina, with Buttigieg a solid second, well ahead of Sanders. Harris and Buttigieg then make a strategic decision to make every Super Tuesday contest a one-on-one battle against Sanders, who can no longer win with around 20-25% of the vote.

On March 3, Harris wins California and the southern states (Alabama, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) while Buttigieg wins Colorado, Massachusetts and Minnesota. Sanders finishes second or third in every state, collecting some delegates, while Biden and Warren see their campaigns end with a whimper.

Opening a commanding one-two lead in delegates, Harris and Buttigieg follow the same path as Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards in 2004: a relatively calm trek through the remaining primaries and caucuses, with Harris steadily closing in on the nomination. Once she does, she surprises nobody by selecting Buttigieg as her running mate, just as Kerry chose Edwards in 2004.

Scenario 4: Someone other than Biden, Sanders or Warren wins Iowa and/or New Hampshire

This is the true wild card scenario, which is nearly impossible to game out at this point.

Still, let us suppose Booker continues to have very strong debate performances, and with them now on a single night (for the sake of argument, the October debate is one night), this finally resonates with voters, who take a long second look at him.

As a result, he surprises everyone by winning the Iowa caucuses. Rather than campaign in New Hampshire or Nevada, which he concedes to Sanders and Warren, he focuses exclusively on South Carolina. Sensing weakness in Biden, and excited by his Iowa win, black voters overwhelmingly support Booker, who just edges Biden, effectively ending that latter’s campaign.

Booker and Warren (who won New Hampshire and Nevada) then battle it out on Super Tuesday. With Harris making a last stand in California, and O’Rourke doing the same in Texas, Warren wins the former, Booker the latter. Warren and Booker now effectively replay the 2008 campaign between then-Senators Barack Obama and Clinton, with the most likely outcome either a Warren-Booker or a Booker-Warren ticket.

An alternative scenario sees Buttigieg finishing in the top two or three in Iowa (behind Biden and Warren in some order), then winning the New Hampshire primary. Nevada is again an afterthought, and Biden wins South Carolina. This feels somewhat like the 1988 Republican nomination battle, when then-Senator Bob Dole of Kansas won Iowa, but ultimately lost to the front runner, then-Vice-President George H. W. Bush; Biden thus eventually prevails.

What these scenarios suggests is that, based upon what we know now, Biden and Warren are far and away the most likely nominees, but there are universes in which Harris or Booker win the nomination. By contrast, it is very difficult to see Sanders or (probably) Buttigieg doing so…or any other candidate, for that matter.

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Because Democrats other than Biden and Sanders, who would beat Trump nationally by 9.0 and 5.7 points, respectively, are also winning (or barely losing) hypothetical head-to-head match-ups, “2020 Democratic nominee” (averages vs. Trump weighted by likelihood of being the nominee) now beats Trump by 4.1 points. This is higher than the median Democratic presidential margin (+3.0 points) in the previous six presidential elections, which include three elections with an incumbent seeking reelection and three elections with no incumbent. However, once you exclude Biden and Sanders, the margin over Trump decreases to 1.0 points; Warren would hypothetically win by 2.5 points and Harris by 1.9 points, while Buttigieg, O’Rourke and Booker would lose by less than one point.

Still, given that state-level results actually determine the winner of a presidential election (via the Electoral College), it is more informative to look to those polls, where they are publicly-available. Using my 3W-RDM, a measure of how much more or less Democratic a state’s voting is relative to the nation as a whole, this polling[7] implies Democrats would win the national popular vote by between 3.2 (excluding Biden and Sanders) and 6.5 (including Biden and Sanders) points on average. Most encouraging to Democrats should be the polls from North Carolina (R+6.0) and Texas (R+15.3), which show a very close race, implying a national Democratic lead of 5-7-and 12-15-points, respectively; these polls confirm strong opportunities for Democrats in the southeast and southwest. By contrast, however, a few polls from Democratic-leaning Maine (D+5.9) and Nevada (D+2.0) imply Democrats would lose nationwide by 1-6 points. Those remain the exceptions, however, to what continues to be encouraging news for Democrats in 2020.

Until next time…

[1] Essentially, polls are weighted within areal units (nation, state) by days to the nominating contest and pollster quality to form a unit-specific average, then a weighted average is taken across Iowa (weight=5), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (4), South Carolina (4), the time-weighted average of all subsequent contests (2) and nationwide (1). Within the subsequent contests, I now weight the 10 March 3, 2020 “Super Tuesday” states (Alabama, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) twice as much as the subsequent contests. As of this writing, I have at least one poll from (in chronological order) Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Washington, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon and New Jersey.

[2] Primarily Texas (15), California (14)

[3] Primarily Florida (9), Pennsylvania (5), Wisconsin (5)

[4] This does include polls that limit the number of candidates queried.

[5] As a doctoral student in government at Harvard in the early 1990s, I was a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course on this very topic.

[6] As of this writing, anyway.

[7] From Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa, Arizona, South Carolina, Minnesota, Nevada, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Washington, Colorado, Missouri, Utah.

The Butterfly (ballot) Effect

It is a curious fact that on November 10, 2002, just two days after the United Nations (UN) Security Council passed Resolution 144, requiring Iraq to readmit UN weapons inspectors and comply with prior Security Council resolutions, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, M.D. gave the keynote address at the 2002 Annual Meeting and Expo of the American Public Health Association (APHA).

The meeting was held that year in Philadelphia, and I was in the audience for that address. As a political junkie, I knew who Dean was, but I had never heard him speak. Like nearly everyone else in that room, though, I was riveted. Given the venue and Dean’s background as an internist, he primarily called for universal health insurance (paid for by a full repeal of the 2001 tax cuts) among other health-related issues.

But in style and tone, he sounded very much like a man who wanted to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2004 against President George Walker Bush.

And by the time he formally announced his candidacy on June 23, 2003, I had already attended a handful of “Meet-Ups” organized in support of his likely candidacy.

Dean would ultimately lose the nomination to Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Kerry and running-mate Senator John Edwards of North Carolina would then lose narrowly to Bush (had Kerry flipped 80,000 votes in Ohio, he would have won the Electoral College [EV] 271-267, while still losing the popular vote by 2.4 percentage points).

As usual, vote totals come from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

The keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was given by a little-known candidate for the United States (US) Senate (Senate) from Illinois named Barack Obama. Obama would easily win his Senate race that fall over Republican Alan Keyes.

Meanwhile, on February 12, 2005, Dean was elected Chair of the Democratic National Committee. Over the next four years, he would oversee the Democratic recapture of the US House of Representatives (House) and Senate in 2006, as well as the election of Obama as the first African-American president in 2008.

Dean’s greatest legacy, however, was being one of the first Democratic officials to call for an end to the Iraq War, which had launched on March 19, 2003. That mantle would be taken up a few years later by Obama in his battle against New York Senator Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Obama would single out Clinton’s October 11, 2002 vote in favor of authorizing President Bush “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”[1]

Here is the full text of that resolution:

H. J. Res. 114

The Iraq War lasted until December 15, 2011, by which time some 5,000 coalition troops and well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died (including deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein); more precise estimates are difficult to locate.

Rather than re-litigating the Iraq War, I simply state my firm belief that it does not happen if a few thousand voters in Palm Beach County, FL, intending to vote for Vice President Albert A. Gore, Jr. in the 2000 presidential election but confused by Florida’s “butterfly ballot,” had not mistakenly voted for Reform Party nominee Patrick J. Buchanan instead.

FL 2000 ballot

Yes, Gore gave a speech in San Francisco, CA on September 23, 2002 in which he declared himself open to future multilateral military action against Iraq for its ongoing defiance of UN inspections and sanctions. However, that speech was specifically in response to the authorization resolution then approaching final passage in the House and Senate.

In an alternate world in which Al Gore is president in 2002, the wording of that speech (calling the resolution far too broad and vague while explicitly de-linking Iraq from the September 11, 2001 attacks) tells me that no such resolution would have been proposed in Congress in 2002. And if it had, he would not have actively supported it the way President Bush did, convincing 29 (of 51[2]) Democrats to vote “Yes.”

Simply put: no authorizing resolution, no Iraq War (at least, not one that we would recognize).

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I recently speculated about the impact of a counterfactual Tom Dewey victory over President Harry Truman in 1948.

A few nights ago my wife Nell asked me if “I was done with Dewey.” Not sure what she meant, I started to talk about my interest in the counterfactual that Dutch Schultz does assassinate then-Special-Prosecutor Dewey in 1935.

“Basically, not much would have changed as…”

“No,” she gently interrupted my stream of consciousness, “I mean are you still writing about ‘what if so-and-so’ had won?”

“Maaaybe… why?”

“Because I am really interested in what would have happened if Gore had beaten Bush.”

[I paraphrase somewhat, but this is the gist of the conversation.]

I started to demur (having never “taken requests” before), but then I quickly became excited by the possibilities.

Just bear with me, then, while I briefly review the 2000 US presidential election.

Because President William J. Clinton could not seek a third term under Amendment XXII to the US Constitution, two Democrats (Gore and former New Jersey Senator William W. Bradley) and 13 Republicans (all but six of whom—then-Texas-governor Bush, Arizona Senator John McCain, Keyes, businessman Steve Forbes, conservative activist Gary Bauer, and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch—had withdrawn by the end of 1999) ran for president in 2000.

Gore would sweep the nominating contests, eventually choosing Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate; Lieberman was the first Jewish major-party nominee for president or vice president.

Bush would face a serious challenge from McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary on February 1 48.5 to 30.4%. However, McCain dropped out of the race on March 9, after losing the majority of Super Tuesday states two days earlier. Bush would ultimately name former Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney as his running-mate.

The general election campaign was, frankly, boring. Bush led by a narrow, but consistent, margin in the public polling, though that margin had dropped to an average of just 2.0 percentage points by Election Day (November 7).  Complicating matters were the candidacies of Buchanan and Green Party nominee Ralph Nader.

My enduring memory of that election night is this sequence of events:

  • CNN declares Gore the winner of Florida, essentially making Gore the next president
  • CNN retracts that call, calling Florida “too close to call”
  • CNN declares Bush the winner of Florida, making him the next president
  • CNN retracts its call a second time, again calling Florida “too close to call”
  • Well after 2 am, I go to sleep

You may read about five weeks of hanging chads here. The upshot is that Bush was ultimately declared the winner of Florida—and the presidency—by 537 votes (out of 5,963,110 votes cast in Florida, and 105,425,985 cast nationwide).

Somewhat lost in the Florida recount drama was that Gore won the popular vote by almost 550,000 votes (48.4 to 47.9%).

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The least-complicated path to a Gore victory in 2000 is through the Palm Beach County voters who mistakenly voted for Buchanan. Had they voted “correctly,” Gore likely nets some 5,000 votes and is declared the winner early on the morning of November 8, 2000. Florida Governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush quietly signals to his older brother George that a recount is not worth the trouble, and the latter graciously concedes to Gore.

One thing would have changed immediately.

Once Lieberman was sworn in as vice president on January 20, 2001, the Connecticut’s Republican governor, John Rowland, would have appointed a Republican to replace him in the Senate (assuming two-thirds of the solidly Democratic legislature approved), giving Republicans a temporary 51-49 Senate majority. Under Connecticut law, though, a special election would have been held on or about August 31 (160 non-weekend days from January 20).

In our actual timeline, Vice President Cheney’s tie-breaking vote Senate gave the Republicans the majority, despite a split 50-50. That changed on May 24, 2001, when Republican Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched his party affiliation to Independent and began to caucus with the Democrats, effectively giving the latter a 51-49 majority.

With Gore as president, it is highly unlikely Jeffords switches parties (though he and Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island—who both voted against H. J. Res. 114—would have continued to vote with the Democrats much of the time). However, it is also likely that only a very moderate Republican (Representative Chris Shays? former Senator and Governor Lowell Weicker?) would have won 2/3 approval of Connecticut’s General Assembly. Either way, a Democrat would have been a slight favorite to win the special election, restoring the Democrats 50-50 majority (with Vice President Lieberman the tie-breaker).

Meanwhile, the Republicans only had a nine-seat majority in the House, 222-213, including two Independents: one who typically voted with the Democrats (Bernie Sanders of Vermont) and one who typically voted with the Republicans (Virgil Goode of Virginia).

The bottom line is this: Gore and Lieberman, having just won a narrow surprise victory (294-244 EV; 0.5 percentage points) would have faced a nominally Republican Congress—and an evenly divided nation.

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In my remarkably-similar Dewey victory scenario, I argued that nominating General Dwight D. Eisenhower as Secretary of State would be the best unifying move he could make, while also eliminating a future rival for the presidency.

I argue Gore would have made an analogous move: appointing former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Colin Powell as Secretary of State or, less likely, Secretary of Defense.

Of course, that is exactly what President Bush did, making Powell the first African-American Secretary of State.

If Gore named Powell Secretary of Defense instead, I believe he names the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. of Delaware, as Secretary of State. He may also have kept Madeline Albright on as Secretary of State, but I suspect he would have wanted to choose his own person.

Both men would have easily won Senate confirmation.

If Powell became Secretary of State, then a fascinating choice for Secretary of Defense would have been McCain. McCain may well have been too hawkish for Gore (and most Democrats), but the idea is worthy of consideration if only because of McCain’s bipartisan instincts and his closeness to Lieberman.[3]

Not to wander too far down a speculative rabbit hole, but having replaced the first female Secretary of State with a man, he could then have made history by nominating the first female Secretary of the Treasury (even if Lawrence Summers had only been serving in that role since July 2, 1999). Strong candidates include Alice Rivlin, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, or Janet Yellen, who had recently served on the White House Council of Economic Advisors (and in 2014 would become the first female Chair of the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors).

Finally, while he may have been tired of serving after having spent the previous eight years as Secretary of the Interior, I think Bruce Babbitt would have been considered for Attorney General.

**********

It is difficult to remember post-9/11 how good things generally were in the US in January 2001. While the economy was slowing down (and would actually enter an eight-month-long recession in March 2001), it had been growing since July 1995, averaging 4.3-percentage-point quarterly increases in real Gross Domestic Product. The federal government actually ran surpluses in Fiscal Years 1999 and 2000. The US was not at war, even accounting for ongoing conflict in the Balkans. Terrorism was not a perceived threat, despite 1998 attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and an attack on the USS Cole in 2000; all three attacks were launched by an Islamic militant organization called al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden.

The Bush Administration rode these budget surpluses to passage of massive tax cuts (Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act) on June 7, 2001. I still remember receiving my $300 rebate check. Bush himself was fairly popular, averaging 56.6% approval (vs. 31.4% disapproval) in Gallup polls.

My surmise is that President Gore, facing a nominally Republican Congress, calls for much smaller, targeted tax cuts.

But otherwise, he would almost certainly have used the budget surpluses to pay for his top domestic priority (besides preventing the Social Security trust fund from being raided, brilliantly parodied here): battling climate change.

We can argue about the economic impact of the 2001 (and 2003) Bush tax cuts. However, on this point I stand firm: Iraq War aside, the loss of eight years of action to reverse the human-activity-caused warming of the Earth’s atmosphere was the single worst impact of Bush’s victory.[4]

**********

And then came the morning of September 11, 2001.

I am agnostic on whether the Bush Administration “should” have known an attack like that was coming, although there is evidence they…misunderestimated…warning signs. Still, to know that al-Qaeda was going to attack those targets in that way on that day is absurd. Was there a clear, if vague, threat? Yes. Could 9/11 have been prevented? I have absolutely no idea.

So I must conclude that 9/11, or something similar, still happens.

Outside of doing everything in his power to capture (or kill) Bin Laden, and not using the attack as the pretext to invade Iraq, I cannot say with certainty how the Gore Administration would have handled such an event.

I will always give President Bush credit for his immediate response: calming the nation in a televised address, standing with his bullhorn at Ground Zero, and immediately going into Afghanistan in search of al Qaeda.

I have no doubt President Gore would have behaved remarkably similarly—calm, resolute and determined.

It is after that I think their paths diverge.

Would there still have been a Patriot Act and, by extension, a Department of Homeland Security? We cannot know for sure, but I think the answer is no.

Would there still have been a War on Terror? Possibly, but it would have looked very different; it would not have been used (like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) to justify all manner of foreign policy interventions. My evidence for this, again, is Gore’s September 2002 speech.

The counter-argument is that no Democrat ever wants to appear weak on national security matters, although Gore’s own service in Vietnam—and the presence of Powell—would have insulated him somewhat.

On balance, then, the response to 9/11 would have very similar in the short term (most notably, the invasion of Afghanistan), but very different in the longer term (no Patriot Act, no “War on Terror”—and no Iraq War).

**********

In the actual 2002 midterm elections, the Republicans defied recent history by netting two Senate and eight House seats; based on the average of the previous five midterm elections for a newly-elected president, Republicans should have lost one Senate seat and 15 House seats.[5] These atypical gains resulted in part from a rally-‘round-the flag effect of the ongoing response to 9/11 (chart from here).

1200px-George_W_Bush_approval_ratings_with_events.svg

Under President Gore, would Democrats have gained two Senate seats, or lost one? Would they have gained eight House seats, or lost 15? Let’s split the difference: the Democrats net one Senate seat (giving them a 51-49 edge), while losing only three or four House seats.

This makes the 2002 midterm elections effectively a wash.

It is in 2004, however, that things get dicey for the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

The 1856 US presidential election was the first in which a Democratic nominee (James Buchanan) faced a Republican nominee (John C. Fremont); Buchanan won. Since then there have been nine elections (1880, 1884, 1908, 1912, 1932, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1992) in which the party controlling the White House sought a fourth, fifth or sixth consecutive term; that party won only four (44%) of those elections. Limiting those elections to the five in which only a fourth consecutive term was being sought, the percentage improves to three out of five (60%).

However, there has only been one such opportunity (President George H. W. Bush losing reelection in 1992) since 1952, when Adlai Stevenson failed to win a sixth consecutive Democratic victory. And all eight previous such elections occurred when one party tended to control the White House (Republicans won all but four elections from 1860 to 1928, Democrats won all but two elections from 1932 to 1964). Starting in 1968, though, Republicans held the White House for 28 of 48 years (through 2016)—and a Gore Administration would have brought Democrats to parity.

In other words, short of capturing Bin Laden (say, at Tora Bora in December 2001), it would have been very difficult for Democrats to win a fourth consecutive term in 2004.

Who would have beaten the Gore-Lieberman ticket?

Since 1980, Republicans have tended to nominate the runner-up from the previous contested nomination (Ronald Reagan 1980, G.H.W. Bush 1988, Bob Dole 1996, McCain 2008, Mitt Romney 2012), implying McCain would have been the prohibitive front-runner had he run in 2004.

The growing ever-more-conservative wing of the party still viewed him with suspicion in 2008 (one reason he chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate), so he would likely have been challenged from the right. Possible candidates (who actually ran in 2008 or 2012) include Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO), Texas Governor Rick Perry and Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MN). Of those candidates, only Huckabee (7), Santorum (11) and Gingrich (2) ever won any primaries or caucuses.

Ultimately, though, it is hard to see anyone wresting the nomination from McCain.

Who would McCain then have chosen as his running mate?

“Conventional” picks include Jeb Bush, especially given the importance of Florida in 2000, and three Ohioans: former Representative John Kasich (who ran briefly in 2000), Senator Mike DeWine and Governor Bob Taft. Whoever had won more social conservative votes between Huckabee and Santorum could have made a good “unity” pick, while Thompson’s aw-shucks conservatism (and acting career) would have been appealing as well.

He also could have considered three women: North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle. Either of Maine’s two Senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, would have been deemed too moderate.

My guess?

None of the above.

That McCain wanted his close friend Lieberman to be his 2008 running mate shows how important that personal connection was to him. I do not know if he was as close to McCain in 2004 as he is now, but my gut tells me he picks South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who had become a conservative darling as one of the House prosecutors in President Clinton’s January 1999 Senate impeachment trial.

There is one more reason why I think the McCain-Graham ticket wins in 2004: no Karl Rove.

As Bush’s chief strategist, Rove emphasized maximizing base turnout over “running to the center.” One way he did this was through controversial 2004 state ballot initiatives on such issues as gay marriage and stem cell research.

But if Bush loses in 2000, Rove never gets the chance to use that strategy in 2004, likely altering Republican strategy for the next 12 years. McCain is thus free to re-run his 2000 nomination-contest playbook: appealing to Independents and like-minded Democrats (while Graham shores up the Republican base).

It works, in my opinion, with McCain holding Bush’s 244 EV while adding Florida (27), Michigan (17) and New Mexico (5), winning 293 to 245.

Of course, whichever ticket won in 2004 would have faced the same rough four years President Bush actually did: Hurricane Katrina, the near-collapse of the auto industry, the Great Recession of 2007-08, and so forth. And it is easy to imagine an aggressive McCain committing American troops around the world (perhaps even in…wait for it…Iraq).

Who would then defeat President McCain in 2008? It would not have been Dean (without Bush, he never runs for president) or Obama (who bides his time by winning reelection to the Senate in 2010). Probable candidates include Clinton, Edwards (who wins reelection in 2004), Biden, Lieberman, Kerry and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. I do not think former Representative Richard Gephardt (D-MO) or Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd run.

Clinton is almost certainly the prohibitive front-runner (especially without an Iraq War vote to defend), but any of these candidates (pre-Rielle-Hunter Edwards, in particular) could have given her a tough time.

And with a Democratic victory in 2008—Clinton-Edwards? Biden-Clinton? Clinton-Richardson?—we loop back into a familiar timeline.

Albeit one in which…

  1. The Iraq War as we know it never happens,
  2. Addressing climate change is a top domestic priority,
  3. The War on Terror never happens,
  4. There is no Patriot Act or Department of Homeland Security,
  5. No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug bill (Medicare Part D) never exist,
  6. Tax cuts are smaller and more targeted,
  7. The budget surpluses of 1999-2000 are not eliminated by tax cuts, two wars and the prescription drug bill, and
  8. Very possibly, the US elects a female president in 2008.

Until next time…

[1] H.J.Res. 114 — 107th Congress: Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

[2] This total includes Independent Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who was caucusing with the Democrats.

[3] McCain now says he regrets not choosing Lieberman as his running-mate in 2008.

[4] Point of personal privilege: in the 1990s, I dated a woman who earned her doctorate in chemistry from MIT. She s spent the summer of 1994 in New Zealand analyzing data on the shrinking ozone layer gathered by planes that would fly from New Zealand over the Antarctic. Her doctoral adviser, Mario Molina, was a co-recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking work in atmospheric chemistry. Climate change is real, and we humans are causing it. Full stop.

[5] These are the median values from 1970, 1978, 1982, 1990 and 1994. I used the median, rather than the averages (-2 Senate seats, -23 House seats) to avoid extreme skew from the Democratic performance in 1994 (Bill Clinton’s first midterm election: a net loss of nine Senate and 54 House seats).

What if Dewey HAD defeated Truman…

This is one of the most iconic photographs in American history.

Dewey Defeats Truman

Easy as it is now to mock the editors of the Chicago Tribune for jumping the gun on the 1948 presidential election, they were merely anticipating what Americans thought was going to happen: incumbent Democratic president Harry S Truman (who had become president in April 1945 after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt) would be soundly defeated by the Republican nominee, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey.

As Zachary Karabell wrote in The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election:

“There was a full month left, and every informed observer believed that it was already over. Not even bookies would take bets on Dewey. But the candidates couldn’t just quit. Dewey couldn’t simply retreat to his Pawling farm and wait for the inevitable, and Truman wasn’t about to get off his train and concede defeat. They may have been going through the motions, but the motions were important. It was imperative that each of them play his part, if not to perfection, then at least convincingly. Because for all the prognostications, the election lay weeks in the future and the future might hold surprises.”[1]

Further, having “decided that the outcome was sealed, reporters and commentators ignored signs that might have pointed in a different direction.”[2] Despite the fact that the three major pollsters—Gallup, Roper and Crossley—had shown Truman gaining in mid-October polls[3], no poll was conducted in the final two weeks of the campaign[4].

An average of these final, mid-October polls showed Dewey ahead 50.8 to 42.5, with the remaining 6.7% split between the two main independent candidates (State’s Rights [aka Dixiecrat] J. Strom Thurmond and Progressive Henry A. Wallace), other third-party candidates and undecided voters. Two months earlier, Truman had been polling around 34%, so he had gained some 8.5 percentage points, while Dewey had been polling around 47.5%, so he had gained about 3.3 percentage points[5]. Truman was clearly netting voters…but nobody thought it would be enough.[6]

Dewey and his advisors on the “Victory Express”—Truman was not the only candidate with a campaign train—saw the tightening polls. However, they chose to continue their “dignified, sincere, and clean” strategy of projecting a “noble mien.”[7] And while it is a myth that Dewey sat back and waited for the electoral verdict (he had traveled 16,000 miles to Truman’s 22,000 miles[8]), he had not campaigned with nearly the same zeal or urgency as Truman (or Thurmond or Wallace, for that matter).

One Cassandra did try to shake the Dewey campaign out of its complacency. Edward Hutton (of E. F. Hutton) sent a telegram to the Dewey campaign nine days before the election “warning that contrary to all the polls and pundits, defeat was in the air unless Dewey showed some hints of the toughness he once exuded as a prosecutor.”[9]

Hutton was prescient.

On November 3, 1948, Truman won 49.6% of the popular vote, Dewey won 45.1%, and Thurmond and Wallace each won 2.4%, with the remaining 0.6% divided among a variety of third-party candidates and write-in votes. Overall, Truman beat Dewey by just over 2.1 million votes. The 531 Electoral College votes (EV) were divided thus: Truman 303 (28 states), Dewey 189 (16), Thurmond 39 (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina).

Dewey had fallen just 77 EV short of the 266 he needed to win. Had he won about 18,000 more votes in California (47.6-47.1%), 34,000 in Illinois (50.1-49.2%) and 8,000 (49.5-49.2%) in Ohio, he and his running mate, California Governor Earl Warren, would have won the 1948 presidential election, saving the Chicago Tribune decades of embarrassment.

**********

Inspired by Cody Franklin and his entertainingly inventive website AlternativeHistoryHub, I conducted a thought experiment:

What if Dewey had won California, Illinois and Ohio in 1948, and he, not Truman, had been sworn in as president of the United States on January 20, 1949.

My answers—which are purely speculative, obviously—surprised me.

First, though, let us consider how Dewey could have won.

The simplest way would have been for Dewey, once the polls began tightening in early October, to heed Hutton’s warning. A more aggressive stance against Truman (more on this later) would have been catnip to a bored press corps, who in turn would have eagerly written stories about how the “exciting” and “engaged” Dewey was taking nothing for granted and battling to the very end. This, in turn, would have caught the attention of a sleepy electorate…and, in this scenario, just enough of them vote for Dewey, rather than Truman, in California, Illinois and Ohio (and perhaps Idaho, Iowa, Nevada and Wisconsin—all decided by <5 percentage points) to give Dewey a narrow Electoral College victory.

The thing is, even if Dewey had won all seven of these states (giving him 23 to Truman’s 21), he would almost certainly still have lost the popular vote by more than 1 million votes, becoming the third Republican president to win an Electoral College majority while losing the popular vote.

Moreover, in this counterfactual universe, the Democrats still likely recapture the United States House of Representatives (House) and Senate (Senate), though perhaps not by 92 and 12 seats, respectively.

At the same time, however, the Democratic Party itself would have been severely fractured, having lost its first presidential election in 20 years. Truman’s victory is even more astonishing when you consider that two former Democrats—Thurmond, the segregationist governor of South Carolina, and Wallace, Roosevelt’s populist Vice President (1941-45)—had run against him form the right and left, respectively.

On July 14, 1948—towards the end of the Democratic National Convention that would nominate Truman and Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley for president and vice president—Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey gave a rousing speech in favor of a strong civil rights plank (“I say the time has come to walk out of the shadow of states’ rights and into the sunlight of human rights!”). This led the Alabama and Mississippi delegations to leave the Philadelphia convention hall in protest. Meeting in Birmingham, Alabama on July 17, what became the State’s Rights Party (which saw itself as the true representatives of southern Democrats) nominated Thurmond and Mississippi Governor Fielding L. Wright for president and vice president.

Wallace, meanwhile, had broken with Truman on September 12, 1946. That day, then-Commerce-Secretary Wallace gave a speech in New York City’s Madison Square Garden (which he always insisted had been approved by Truman) in which he outlined a far more accommodating view toward the Soviet Union (seeing the two nations as morally equivalent within their spheres of influence) than the political establishments of either party. He also called for the newly-formed United Nations (UN) to control all atomic weapons. Truman, pressured by Secretary of State James Byrnes, asked for—and received—Wallace’s resignation. Less than two years later, on July 23, 1948, the Progressive Party would meet in Philadelphia and nominate Wallace and Idaho Senator Glen H. Taylor for president and vice president.

It is noteworthy here that Truman, as he fought to win reelection, sounded more and more like a liberal populist in the last month of the campaign.[10]

In sum, then, the political bottom line is this:

After being expected to win easily, President Dewey would only have eked out a narrow Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote by 2-3 percentage points. And while the Democratic Party may have been fracturing, it would still have solidly controlled both the House and Senate, though in this alternate world, more Republican House and Senate candidates win outside the South (where the Republican Party effectively did not exist), making southern Democrats an outright majority of Democrats in both the House and Senate. [11].

And here is where I make my first prediction.

Dewey and Warren were both moderate governors who had campaigned in platitudes of unity more than specific policy proposals. They also had zero foreign policy experience.

Dewey’s choice of Secretary of State would thus have been vitally important. And I believe that the obvious choice would have been General Dwight David Eisenhower.

Anti-Truman Democrats had tried to convince the popular World War II hero to accept the Democratic nomination, while Dewey worried about his entry into the Republican nominating contest right up until the July conventions, when Eisenhower unequivocally announced he would not accept either party’s nomination.[12]

But Eisenhower still loomed on the horizon for 1952, and Dewey could have eliminated that threat by naming Eisenhower his Secretary of State. Despite having just become president of Columbia University, I cannot see the long-time military man Eisenhower (who we now know was a Republican) refusing a direct request from a president-elect.

I also suspect that the practical Dewey, who by all account built quality staffs throughout his career, would have had a fairly bipartisan and non-ideological Cabinet.

Meanwhile, it would have been Dewey and Eisenhower (not Truman and George C. Marshall, Secretary of State since January 1947) who would have faced these immediate foreign policy crises:

–August 29, 1949: The Soviet Union successfully tests its own atomic bomb. Does a President Dewey order the creation of the hydrogen bomb, as President Truman did?

–October 1, 1949: Mao Zedong proclaims the People’s Republic of China, creating a second Communist superpower. The accusation (fair or not) that Truman “lost” China, and was thus not tough enough on Communism, would instead have been hurled at the inexperienced Dewey, though mitigated by the stature of Eisenhower (and the fact that Dewey could still point back to Truman).

–June 25, 1950: 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army cross into the American-backed Republic of Korea, in what has been described as the first military action of the Cold War. Does President Dewey order American troops to the Korean peninsula in July 1950, making what could have been “just” a civil war into a proxy war between the United States (and its allies) and the Soviet Union (and its allies)?

Given the emerging bipartisan consensus that Communism was an international threat that needed to be contained, combined with Dewey’s and Warren’s own lack of foreign policy experience and the internationalist slant of the 1948 Republican Party platform[13], my best guess is that our foreign policy would have changed little. If pressed, I would argue Dewey also orders more advanced nuclear weapons. However, I think the responses to Mao and the invasion of South Korea would have been more muted; it is just possible not as many troops are sent to Korea and an armistice is achieved much sooner. After all, it only took President Eisenhower six months to achieve the armistice which still holds.

Of course, this means that there would have been no dramatic firing of General Douglas MacArthur on April 11, 1951, after he openly bucked President Truman on whether to bomb and invade China.

**********

As important as those crises were, I think the most profound change would have been no McCarthyism (at least, not then).

On February 9, 1950, first-term Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin gave a speech in Wheeling, WV during which he waved what he claimed was a list of 205 Communists, known to Secretary of State Marshall, who had infiltrated the State Department.[14] That he was ultimately unable to name a single one did not prevent the rise of McCarthyism, a tactic of using unsubstantiated claims of Communist sympathy (or other scurrilous description) to defame reputations.

While an emboldened McCarthy, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations (and its permanent subcommittee on investigations), eventually took on President Eisenhower (and lost), I have a difficult time seeing McCarthy challenging a State Department run by Eisenhower in February 1950.

It is also just possible that the McCarran Internal Security Act, requiring the registration of “Communist” agencies with the United States Attorney General, never passes (over Truman’s veto!), though that is merely speculation on my part.

That is foreign and national security policy. What about domestic policy?

**********

Before I answer that question, just bear with me while I briefly review the life of the man Alice Roosevelt Longworth once (wrongly) derided as “the little man on top of the wedding cake.”[15]

Thomas Edmund Dewey was born in Owosso, MI, on March 24, 1902. His father, George Martin Dewey, was editor of The Owosso Times and deeply involved in local Republican politics. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1923, his first thought was to pursue a career in music; he had an excellent baritone. As a backup plan, he enrolled at Columbia Law School in September 1923, graduating in only two years.

After a stint in private practice, the 29-year-old Dewey was appointed chief assistant to George Medalie, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY). In 1933, after Dewey was himself appointed U.S. Attorney for SDNY after Medalie’s abrupt resignation, he secured the conviction of mobster Waxey Gordon (aka Irving Wechsler) for income tax evasion.

Two years later, he was appointed Special Prosecutor and charged with prosecuting such organized crime figures as Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Arthur Flegenheimer, aka Dutch Schultz.

Allegedly, Dewey’s investigations so unnerved Schultz he planned to have Dewey killed, going so far as to monitor the routine of the clockwork Dewey; Dewey took the threats in stride, refusing to alter his routine. However, rather than face the heat that would result from Dewey’s assassination, Luciano reportedly ordered contract killers from Murder, Inc. to kill Schultz. While dining with confederates in the Palace Chop House in Newark, NJ on the night of October 23, 1935, Schultz and his confederates were gunned down by unidentified men

[Side note 1: I love this reenactment of the death of Schultz from one of favorite “guilty pleasures, the entertaining {and historically inaccurate} The Cotton Club.]

[Side note 2: I cannot recommend highly enough Murder, Inc. but Burton Turkus and Sid Feder.

[Side note 3: Writing this, I wonder how history would have changed if Schultz actually had killed Dewey in 1935. But that is an entirely different post.]

Dewey would send Luciano and 71 other people to prison before easily being elected New York District Attorney in 1937; he served only one term. He first ran for governor of New York in 1938, losing narrowly to Democrat Herbert H. Lehman.

Still, this was enough for national Republicans to try to secure the presidential nomination for the 38-year-old Dewey, though he ultimately lost the nomination to Wendell Willkie (who in turn was soundly defeated by President Roosevelt).

In a 1942 rematch, Dewey beat Governor Lehman handily, ultimately serving three four-year terms as governor.

In 1944, Dewey was the Republican nominee for president, losing to President Roosevelt. Four years later, he would beat Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen and Ohio Senator Robert Taft (among others) for the Republican nomination…and that brings us back to the election of 1948.

**********

Two facts about Dewey’s pre-1948 career strike me as relevant.

One, when Dewey was appointed Special Prosecutor in 1935, he chose a black woman lawyer named Eunice Hunton Carter to be his deputy assistant; she was the only member of this 20-person staff who was not a white man. Carter was instrumental in the indictment and conviction of Luciano, as she organized a series of 200 raids on Luciano-run brothels, ultimately finding three women to testify against him.[16]

[UPDATE: In February 2019, I finally got around to using a gift certificate to The Concord Bookshop I had received for my birthday some 17 months earlier. I had a difficult time deciding until I alighted upon this:

Invisible

It did not even occur to me until later that February is Black History Month.

Here is a key passage (pp. 106-07):

In an interview four years later, Dewey himself told the story differently. In his version, his selection of Eunice [Hunton Carter] reflected less his determination to investigate Harlem[‘s numbers rackets] than his unprejudiced eye for talent:

“I hired Mrs. Carter the first day I met her. Shortly after I was appointed, a prominent judge, who knew that I was looking for a woman assistant, told me he knew a wonderful colored woman lawyer. I told him to send her over, was impressed, and retained her. She has made good, and commands the respect of the bench of the city.

“In applauding Eunice [Hunton Carter] for making good, Dewey here is of course actually applauding his own ability to spot talented people. Probably the skill is one he genuinely possessed. After all, his original twenty assistants included any number of future judges and superstar lawyers, as well as a man who would later serve in the cabinets of two Presidents of the United States, one as attorney general and the other as secretary of state.“]

Two, as governor of New York, Dewey appointed the first state commission to eliminate religious and racial discrimination in employment.

Couple these racially progressive actions with a) a 1948 Republican Party platform that, while otherwise “filled with vague promises and vapid language,”[17] did include a modest anti-racial-discrimination plank and b) a Democratic Party cracking between Northern liberals and Southern segregationists, and I propose the following.

Seeking to capitalize on Democratic Party divisions on race and finding himself hemmed in politically, President Dewey decides to take bold action on racial equality, effectively starting the Civil Rights movement as early as 1949. This single action, with the potential to lure black voters back to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln after 16 years of voting for President Roosevelt, would have fundamentally altered American politics for decades.

Remember, for Dewey even to have won this narrow victory in 1948, he would had to have taken bold and assertive action in the last few weeks of the campaign. Perhaps he begins to highlight both his own actions and the anti-discrimination plank, putting Truman in a vice between the mistrusting liberals and the non-Dixiecrat southern Democrats.

It is equally possible (though far from certain) that the moderate (even liberal, other than on the death penalty) Dewey would have built a coalition of Northern Democrats and like-minded Republicans to advance more liberal policies, in much the same way President Ronald Reagan built a “conservative coalition” of Republicans and Southern Democrats in the early 1980s. This would have resembled President Richard Nixon’s first term, where he essentially ceded domestic policy to Congressional Democrats to focus on foreign policy.

**********

The cyclical nature of American politics suggests that, rather than losing 28 House and five Senate seats in the 1950 midterm elections, Democrats would have gained seats instead. And since the southern Congressional delegation was already uniformly Democratic, these newly-elected Democrats would almost certainly have been Northern Democrats who had run against the Dewey Administration from the left. This, in turn, could easily have led to a three-way split in Congress between Northern Democrats (led by now-Senator Humphrey?), centrists of both parties (led perhaps by Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who would become Democratic leader in 1953), and southern Democrats (who perhaps start to align with more conservative Republicans on overtly racial and virulently anti-Communist lines).

Assuming Dewey and Warren were renominated in 1952, they would have faced a Democratic Party continuing to split along geographic lines; Thurmond may well have run again, this time luring more key southern Democrats (e.g., Senator Richard Russell of Georgia) to support him.[18]

Russell, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee and New York governor Averell Harriman actually were Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson’s chief competition for the Democratic nominee for president in 1952. In the alternate universe of a President Dewey, it is possible that Harriman wages a stronger battle for convention delegates and defeats him. Or that Kefauver (the early balloting leader) formally breaks with the Southern Democrats and wrests the nomination.

Let’s say Stevenson and Kefauver are the presidential and vice-presidential nominees, in some order. In a universe where four or more nominally Democratic southern states vote for Thurmond, it is hard to see how Stevenson-Kefauver[19] (or vice versa) beats Dewey-Warren.

And here is where history really would have taken a left turn.

**********

On September 8, 1953, Chief Justice Fred Vinson (nominated by Truman in 1946) died.

In actuality, President Eisenhower, then in his first term, successfully nominated former California governor and 1948 vice-presidential nominee Earl Warren to be Chief Justice. The Warren Court had a profound impact on American life, most notably through the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954. This case overturned the precedent set six decades earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson, finding that “separate can never be equal.”

Warren knew the outcome of this case was going to be controversial, so he sought—and obtained—a unanimous 9-0 decision.

The Warren Court also handed down key decisions on legislative apportionment (Reynolds v. Sims), marriage (Loving v. Virginia), contraception (Griswold v. Connecticut) and criminal justice (Mapp v. Ohio, Miranda v. Arizona).

I have no idea who a President Dewey would have nominated to replace Chief Justice Vinson. But it is hard to imagine a different Chief Justice having the same impact on American life as Earl Warren did.

Simply put, if Thomas Dewey had won the presidency in 1948 and in 1952, there is almost certainly no Chief Justice Earl Warren. And with no Warren Court, it could well have taken years longer to desegregate the nation’s schools, codify the notion of “one person, one vote,” decriminalize interracial marriage and contraception, put reasonable limits on the seizure of evidence, and require all arrested persons to be properly and quickly informed of their Constitutional rights.

Instead, in this alternate universe, we are considering the possibility of the 65-year-old Warren himself seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 1956 (as he had in 1948). Had he run, it is not clear who else could have won the nomination. For example, it is unlikely that Nixon would have challenged a sitting Vice President from his own state rather than seek reelection to a second term.

An intriguing possibility is New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. In this alternate timeline, he runs for governor in 1950, rather in 1954. Or perhaps a first-term Senator from Arizona named Barry Goldwater would not have waited until 1964 to run for president (unless the realignment into the liberal Republican and conservative Democratic Parties had already begun, and Goldwater conservatives were joining the Democrats, while liberal Democrats were joining the Republicans).

And then there is the 66-year-old Eisenhower. The fact that he almost did not run for reelection in 1956 because of his health likely takes him out of contention.

So let us assume Warren is Republican nominee for president in 1956, perhaps with a border-state Democrat as his running mate. Or even Rockefeller himself.

Who would he have faced?

If the Democratic Party has healed its divisions, than the nomination battle in 1956 would have been a free-for-all between Stevenson, Kefauver, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Humphrey and (perhaps) Johnson—much like 1960 actually was, but four years earlier.

For some reason, a Kefauver-Kennedy ticket jumps out at me. The difficulty sitting Vice Presidents have had recently in winning the presidency in their own right implies the Democrats would have been modest favorites to win.

That said, if the southern Democrats had formed their own party by now, perhaps luring conservative Republicans, then Warren-Rockefeller could have won a three-way race with Kefauver-Kennedy and, say, Russell-Goldwater.

Who knows?

Beyond that, however, I dare not speculate…though I am curious what you think.

Well…one final thought. What so fascinates me about the 1948 presidential election is that while Harry Truman is my favorite president, the more I learn about Tom Dewey, particularly his prosecutorial efforts in the mid-1930s, the more intrigued I am. Love Truman though I do, I think Dewey would have been a solid president, not dissimilar to Eisenhower or the underrated first George Bush. I also do not want the hard-working Dewey to be nothing more than the guy who did NOT defeat Truman. He deserves more than that.

Until next time…

[1] Karabell, Zachary. 2000. The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. pg. 241.

[2] Ibid., pg. 242.

[3] Ibid., pg. 249.

[4] http://www.zetterberg.org/Lectures/l041115.htm

[5] Karabell, pg. 186.

[6] The enormity of the polling error was assessed by a post-election commission led by Harvard statistics Professor Frederick Mosteller. It concluded that by not conducting polls through Election Day, they missed a continued shift to Truman. Moreover, their use of quota sampling (as opposed to truly random sampling), a misunderstanding of how undecided voters would break and an inability to determine just who would vote made their samples (and resulting projections) statistically biased toward Dewey.

[7] Ibid., pg.250.

[8] Ibid., pg.252.

[9] Ibid., pg.250.

[10] Ibid., pp. 245-46.

[11] I define “Southern” as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. In the timeline that actually occurred, southern Democrats occupied 118 (44.9%) of the 263 Democratic House seats and 26 (48.1%) of the 54 Democratic Senate seats.

[12] Karabell, pg. 152-53.

[13] Ibid., pp. 146.

[14] “U.S.Office Still Under Red Charge,” Lansing State Journal (Lansing, MI), February 11, 1950, pg. 1.

[15] I base this account on Dewey’s New York Times obituary. See also Karabell, pg. 77.

[16] To be fair, there is controversy around this testimony, as laid out in Ellen Poulson’s 2007 book The Case Against Lucky Luciano: New York’s Most Sensational Vice Trial.

[17] Karabell, pg. 146. See also pp. 147 and 154-57.

[18] However, given the United States constant reversion to the two-party system, it is likely that the end result is something very much like the two parties we have today: a left-of-center Democratic Party strongest in cities, college towns, the Pacific Coast, the mid-Atlantic and New England; and a right-of-center Republican Party strongest in rural areas and small towns, the South, the Plains Midwest and the upper Mountain West.

[19] Which actually was the Democratic presidential ticket in 1956. On a floor vote called by Stevenson, Kefauver edged a young Massachusetts Senator named John Fitzgerald Kennedy to win the vice-presidential nomination.