The Explainer: The Ghost of Harry Truman

Not for nothing was the man you just saw, President Harry Truman, known as “Give ‘em Hell Harry.” Shown here campaigning 60 years ago in 1948, he pulled the biggest political upset in modern times. Today, as Americans go to the polls, the world is keenly anticipating whether there will be a political landslide or a stunning political upset determining the next occupant of the White House.

Tonight, the Explainer’s American Election Eve Special. I’m Manolo Quezon.


I . Dewey defeats Truman


Let’s begin with this brief commercial:

Now that commercial began with this picture:

That was Harry Truman gleefully displaying the staunchly Republican Chicago Tribune’s stunningly wrong headline, “Dewey defeats Truman” on the day Truman’s re-election victory was announced, proving the columnists and the polling organizations dead wrong.


Truman’s election day upset has come to represent a quadrennial nightmare for media organizations. Will they get it as spectacularly wrong as their colleagues did, in 1948?

Consider the variety of forecasts for this American presidential election; now these screencaps are themselves two days old, but they give you a snapshot of where things stood as the American presidential campaign wrapped up.’s electoral map forecasts 353 electoral votes for Barak Obama and 132 for John McCain. Recall that you need 270 electoral votes to be elected President. also foresaw 353 electoral votes for Obama.

But sees a tighter race: 278 electoral votes for Obama and 132 electoral votes for McCain.

But all three –and they’re just three of many such forecasts- only focus on what the surveys consider pretty certain outcomes for certain states; but they can’t –or won’t- make a call for the battleground states and their electoral votes. goes as far as parceling out the swing states as follows: 119 electoral votes for Obama and 22 for McCain.

Real Clear Politics simply says 128 electoral votes are a toss-up, meaning they can go either way for either candidate.

Vote From puts it differently: declaring 42 electoral votes as barely in the Democratic camp, and 53 barely in the Republican camp.

Put another way, let’s just look at two battleground states that proved crucial in the two Bush victories in 2000 and 2004, Florida, with its harvest of 27 electoral votes, and Ohio, with its 20 electoral votes. Florida as you remember, was the clincher for the Bush-Gore faceoff, while Ohio, which went Republican in 2000 and 2004, is a state the pundits say is necessary for any Republican to win the White House.

Real Clear Politics marks Ohio as grey, a tossup state; it marks Florida as grey, too. Both and Vote from mark Florida as barely in the Democratic camp, while marking Ohio as a slightly stronger in the Democratic camp, but in either case, not a sure thing for the Democrats, unlike say, New York or California.

So a huge amount of attention is going to be focused on these states, and how the reporting takes place, and how the Republicans and Democrats respond to the reporting, will, in many ways, be as much a riveting part of election day as the voting itself, and whatever the eventual results may be.

At the back of every politician, pundit, and pollster’s mind, you see, will be the nagging question of whether we’re going to see a repeat of the press boo boo on Truman, or, conversely, media being so conservative and cautious that they’ll miss out predicting or reporting a landslide victory on the scale of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 sweep, and so on.

Here’s the timeline as reported by the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Starting lunchtime today, this is what’s been going on.


At 1pm today, as you were digesting your lunch, Election Day kicked off in Hart’s Location and Dixville Notch, two tiny towns in Northeastern New Hampshire. As you can see, surveys have Obama leading in this state.


This was followed, as this program began, at 6 p.m., our time, when several polling districts opened in Vermont. As you’re watching this program and by the time we wrap up tonight’s live broadcast, the rest of the Eastern Seaboard states’ precincts would have opened for voting. As you can see, all the surveys indicate an Obama landslide in that state.

Polls will then open between 9 and 11 pm tonight, from the East to the Midwest to the West, as each of America’s four time zones hit the opening hours of 6 to 7 am, their time. Much of the East consists of solidly Blue states, but as you enter the Midwest, and the South, the Red states will start flexing their political muscle.


By midnight tonight, the polls will take place in overwhelmingly Red Alaska.


And finally, at 1 am Wednesday morning our time, the polls will open in overwhelmingly Blue Hawaii.

Voting will end in the Eastern States between 8 to 10 am on Wednesday morning, our time, although voting hours can be extended if turnout is high.


Tomorrow, our time, the initial reports will start rolling in, as the precincts close and each state tabulates and reports the results. The first to report, again according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, will be normally Red, but this year, a tossup-state, Indiana,

and apparently safely Red Kentucky at 7 am, Manila Time, on Wednesday.


The last state to report its results will be Alaska, at 1 pm Manila time, also on Wednesday. So, if you’re keen on how this turns out, you might get indigestion tomorrow afternoon.

So if you visualize it on the electoral maps up on line, you can foresee a couple of things happening. First, coverage will be from East to West, starting with the early bird voters in New England and with excitement mounting as the polls open in the big battleground states. Coverage on turnout will culminate in the West Coast, then shift back to the East and Midwest as the polls close and early reports start coming in, with numbers being crunched by the major networks.

A concern will be that reports of high turnout or heavy voting for certain candidates can affect the turnout and results, in turn, for other parts of the United States. It can sap the will and morale of some groups gearing up to turn out the vote, say, in the Midwest if a landslide or upset is reported in the East; and turnout and initial reports in the Midwest might affect turnout in the West; networks will be careful not to engage in trending, while the Republicans and Democrats will be furiously mounting last-ditch efforts to compensate for initial poor results in some battleground states, by whipping up the party faithful in states that have yet to start voting or where results can still change, based on late voters.

With this in mind, we return, we’ll look at some factors that could affect the outcome in the American elections; and what else is at stake in America’s 2008 elections besides control of the White House.


II. Grand Coalitions


That was Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigning for reelection in what turned out to be the biggest landslide ever seen up to that time. His victory was accompanied by a sweep that ensured Democratic control of the US Congress for a full decade, from 1936 to 1946.

The battle fought on election day in America will be as old as democracy itself. Get your supporters to the voting booth while discouraging the supporters of the other side from making their own big push.


Robocalling, for example, is one way. It’s been a controversial reality in electoral contests for some years now, ever since Carl Rove and the Republicans began to use them extensively to demolish their opponents.

As one website, the one you see on your screen, offering robocalling software proclaims, robocalls are cheaper and more efficient than traditional flyers or having actual volunteers make actual calls.

Here’s an actual robocall someone received, recorded, and posted on YouTube. Have a listen:


There are quite a few more on YouTube, just search for robocall.

Robocalls are meant to help inspire turnout.


As The Economist recently reported, the Obama campaign’s worried that the youth vote may turn out to be a dud yet again; so much of the campaign has focused on getting all groups, including more reliable baby boomers and senior citizens, registered and motivated to turn up on election day; Republicans, too, have focused on senior citizens, Evangelical Christians, and so on, and both sides have devoted energy and resources to the logistics of getting people to the polling precincts.


The Election Assistance Commission in the US recently issued a call for volunteers, predicting heavy turnout. In most states, turnout was in the 40% range in 2004; this year, many states are expecting a turnout in the 80 to 90% range; nationally, the average has been in the 30 to 50% range, with only a few exceptions: a high of 63% in 1960, 61% in 1964 and 60% in 1968; but never above 56% in the four decades since.


John McCain’s pollsters think a turnout exceeding 2004’s 60.7% of voters is quite possible.  That turnout itself was the highest since 1968. If 122 million voters voted in 2004, the McCain pollsters think 130 million voters might just cast their votes.

Indeed, turnout could be historic but part of that record-breaking turnout could make things worse for the party machineries. You see, a lot of Americans seem to have made up their minds long before November 4. Early voting has been taking place in many states.

All this suggests that in a heated race, quite a few citizens have already made up their minds, and did so, relatively early on. Who were these groups? The Associated Press reported that in the South, there was heavy turnout of African-American early voters. Urban residents in cities that often vote Democrat, also voted early in record numbers.

The one group that doesn’t seem to be among the early birds are the youth. Some observes suggest that this only means that the youth may turn out and vote, but at the last minute, since Gen Xers and Yers are notorious procrastinators. Others say that if this is true, it may upset the survey results even more.

That’s because many younger voters don’t have landlines anymore; add to this other minorities, who may not be accessible by landline based surveys, and so, were they properly represented in the surveys, which focus on people with landlines?

This brings up another question brought up by the surge in early voting by African-Americans. What about whites?

Enter the so-called Bradley Effect, which most American media tried to tiptoe around until the BBC’s reportage brought it front and center. In 1992, Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, an African-American, ran for governor of California. He led in the polls all throughout the campaign, but lost to his white rival on Election Day. Pollsters stumped over how they got it wrong, later figured out that respondents must have lied to the pollsters, saying race didn’t matter but including race as a factor in how they actually cast their votes.

Could people be lying to the surveys, pretending not to care about race, but with race as a factor affecting the actual votes they cast? The conventional wisdom puts the percentage points that could be affected, at anywhere from 6 to 8 points. Usually, among white voters. That is, race could add or subtract anywhere up to 6 to 8 points from a candidate’s survey results.

I think the pollsters and pundits are also sniffing around to see if this effect might be taking place among other groups, such as Asians and Latinos. Among older Filipino-Americans, for example, it’s been widely discussed that they tend to vote like white Republicans –conservatively, and if you survey Filipino-American comments on the Internet, it seems race might just be a factor in their voting preferences, too.

Take a look at these Real Clear politics aggregates of the various state-specific surveys.

Here’s Florida:


All the surveys put Obama ahead, averaging out to a 4.2 point lead for Obama, with a maximum of a 7 point lead according to the Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg survey, and a slim, possibly statistically insignificant 2 point lead for Obama according to the Mason-Dixon survey. If race with its potential for up to 8 points shifting, enters the equation, McCain, however, could clinch Florida.

And here’s Ohio:


Put together, the surveys suggest a 4.2 point lead for Obama. If race doesn’t lead to a big switch, Obama stands to win Ohio.

Again, Obama has the most to lose, and McCain the most to gain, from race affecting the actual results. Obama’s biggest lead, survey-wise, is according to the Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg survey, which puts Obama ahead by 9 points; so even if he lost 8 points he’d still win the state. But all the other surveys, which range from the Columbus Dispatch’s 6 point lead for Obama to Mason-Dixon’s 2 point lead for McCain, mean that if race enters the equation, the state could end up having its electoral votes credited to McCain, with the legendary conventional wisdom being that a Republican who carries the state more likely than not, will win the White House.

As it stands, the surveys have Obama enjoying a seven point lead over McCain but with seven points also being in the undecided camp.

Aside from deciding who will be their next President and Vice-President, Americans will be electing their senators and representatives, too.

On the Encyclopedia Brittanica blog, a survey of the pundits predicts that not only will Obama win, but he will also enjoy a commanding majority in both houses of the U.S. Congress.


And if you return to the map of Vote From, you’ll see the numbers predicted: a Democratic majority of 58 in the US Senate and 250 Democrats in the House versus 183 Republicans.

Which points to a problem the Republicans face: since the Democrats gained back control of the House of Representatives in 2004, the Democrats have been building up their political infrastructure state-by-state, as they’ve also gained control of some formerly Republican States. This article:


Says that the Democrats aren’t shy about enjoying the equity of the incumbent in some potentially crucial battleground states, where electoral protests and contests will be decided on the basis of each state’s electoral commission, since there isn’t a national Comelec like we have.


My view


Whatever the outcome, let me briefly point out two things. The first is that American policy towards the Philippines, which has been pretty low on the American strategic totem pole since the bases closed in the 1990s, probably won’t change very much.

The second, is that the Filipino-American vote seems among the most inconsequential, both state-wise and nationally, among America’s minorities. At best, it seems a pale brown copy of however conservative American whites vote, encompassing many of the same aspirations and many of the same fears.

The first is a painful reality for many Filipinos, used to having a special place in American policy and politics; the second, a reality less relevant to us here, at home, but surely something to mull over for Filipinos who have become US citizens.

And perhaps, let me add one naughty observation I’ve increasingly been hearing, from Balikbayans and people here at home alike: isn’t it funny, they cheekily ask, that American politics is increasingly resembling Filipino politics?






Manuel L. Quezon III.

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