The expected candidate for the Democratic nomination was incumbent President Harry S. Truman. Since the newly passed 22nd Amendment did not apply to whoever was president at the time of its passage, he was eligible to run again. But Truman entered 1952 with his popularity plummeting, according to polls. The bloody and indecisive Korean War was dragging into its third year, Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade was stirring public fears of an encroaching “Red Menace”, and the disclosure of widespread corruption among federal employees (including some high-level members of Truman's administration) left Truman at a low political ebb. Polls showed that he had a 66% disapproval rating, only surpassed decades later by Richard Nixon and George W. Bush.
Truman's main opponent was populist Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, who had chaired a nationally televised investigation of organized crime in 1951 and was known as a crusader against crime and corruption. The Gallup poll of February 15 showed Truman's weakness: nationally Truman was the choice of only 36% of Democrats, compared with 21% for Kefauver. Among independent voters, however, Truman had only 18% while Kefauver led with 36%. In the New Hampshire primary Kefauver upset Truman, winning 19,800 votes to Truman's 15,927 and capturing all eight delegates. Kefauver graciously said that he did not consider his victory "a repudiation of Administration policies, but a desire...for new ideas and personalities." Stung by this setback, Truman soon announced that he would not seek re-election (however, Truman insisted in his memoirs that he had decided not to run for re-election well before his defeat by Kefauver).
With Truman's withdrawal, Kefauver became the front-runner for the nomination, and he won most of the primaries. However, most states still chose their delegates to the Democratic Convention via state conventions, which meant that the party bosses - especially the mayors and governors of large Northern and Midwestern states and cities - were able to choose the Democratic nominee. These bosses (including President Truman) strongly disliked Kefauver; his investigations of organized crime had revealed connections between mafia figures and many of the big-city Democratic political organizations. The party bosses thus viewed Kefauver as a maverick who could not be trusted, and they refused to support him for the nomination. Instead, with President Truman taking the lead, they began to search for other, more acceptable, candidates. However, most of the other candidates had a major weakness. Senator Richard Russell, Jr. of Georgia had much Southern support, but his support of racial segregation and opposition to civil rights for Southern blacks led Northern delegates to reject him as a racist. Truman favored U.S. diplomat Averell Harriman of New York, but he had never held an elective office and was inexperienced in politics. Truman next turned to his Vice-President, Alben Barkley, but at 74 he was rejected as being too old by labor union leaders. Other minor or favorite son candidates included Oklahoma Senator Robert Kerr, Governor Paul A. Dever of Massachusetts, Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, and Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas.
One candidate soon emerged who seemingly had few political weaknesses: Governor Adlai Stevenson II of Illinois. The grandson of former Vice-President Adlai E. Stevenson, Stevenson came from a distinguished family in Illinois and was well-known as a gifted orator, intellectual, and political moderate. In the spring of 1952 President Truman tried to convince Stevenson to take the presidential nomination, but Stevenson refused, stating that he wanted to run for re-election as Governor of Illinois. Yet Stevenson never completely took himself out of the race, and as the convention approached many party bosses, as well as normally apolitical citizens, hoped that he could be "drafted" to run.
The 1952 Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago; the convention met in the same coliseum the Republicans had gathered in a few weeks earlier. Since the convention was being held in his home state, Governor Stevenson - who still protested that he was not a presidential candidate - was asked to give the welcoming address to the delegates. He proceeded to give a witty and stirring address that led his supporters to begin a renewed round of efforts to nominate him, despite his protests. After meeting with Jack Arvey, the "boss" of the Illinois delegation, Stevenson finally agreed to enter his name as a candidate for the nomination. The party bosses from other large Northern and Midwestern states quickly joined in support. Kefauver led on the first ballot, but had far fewer votes than necessary to win. Stevenson gradually gained strength until he was nominated on the third ballot. The convention then chose Senator John Sparkman of Alabama, a conservative and segregationist, as Stevenson's running mate. Stevenson then delivered an eloquent acceptance speech in which he famously pledged to "talk sense to the American people."
The following table from Richard C. Bain and Judith H. Parris, Convention Decisions and Voting Records (Washington DC: Brookings Instutition, 1973), pp. 286-292 documents the balloting. Candidates are organized according to their highest total on any single ballot, and they are listed only if they received over 20 votes on a single ballot. The 1952 Democratic convention was the last one for either party that needed more than one ballot to select a Presidential nominee.
|Richard B. Russell||268||294||261|
|W. Averell Harriman||123.5||121||0|
|Alben W. Barkley||48.5||78.5||67.5|
|Robert S. Kerr||65||5.5||0|
|Paul A. Dever||37.5||30.5||0.5|
|J. William Fulbright||22||0||0|
The fight for the Republican nomination was between General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who became the candidate of the party's moderate eastern establishment; Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, the longtime leader of the GOP's conservative wing; and Governor Earl Warren of California, who appealed to Western delegates and independent voters. The moderate Eastern Republicans were led by New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, the party's presidential nominee in 1944 and 1948. The moderates tended to be interventionists who felt that America needed to fight the Cold War overseas and resist Soviet aggression in Europe and Asia; they were also willing to accept most aspects of the social welfare state created by the New Deal in the 1930's. The moderates were also concerned with ending the GOP's losing streak in presidential elections; they felt that the personally popular Eisenhower had the best chance of beating the Democrats. The conservative Republicans led by Senator Taft were based in the Midwest and parts of the South. The conservatives wanted to abolish many of the New Deal welfare programs; in foreign policy they were often non-interventionists, who believed that America should avoid alliances with foreign powers. Senator Taft had been a candidate for the GOP nomination in 1940 and 1948, but had been defeated both times by moderate Republicans from New York. Taft, who was 62 when the campaign began, freely admitted that 1952 was his last chance to win the nomination, and this led his supporters to work hard for him. Taft's weakness, which he was never able to overcome, was the fear of many party bosses that he was too conservative and controversial to win a presidential election. Warren, although highly popular in California, refused to campaign in the presidential primaries and thus limited his chances of winning the nomination. He did retain the support of the California delegation, and his supporters hoped that, in the event of an Eisenhower-Taft deadlock, Warren might emerge as a compromise candidate.
After being persuaded to run, Eisenhower scored a major victory in the New Hampshire primary when his supporters wrote his name onto the ballot, giving him an upset victory over Taft. However, from there until the Republican Convention the primaries were divided fairly evenly between the two men, and by the time the convention opened the race for the nomination was still too close to call.
When the 1952 Republican National Convention opened in Chicago, most political experts rated Taft and Eisenhower as neck-and-neck in the delegate vote totals. Eisenhower's managers, led by Governor Dewey and Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., accused Taft of "stealing" delegate votes in Southern states such as Texas and Georgia. They claimed that Taft's leaders in these states had unfairly refused to give delegate spots to Eisenhower supporters and put Taft delegates in their place. Lodge and Dewey proposed to evict the pro-Taft delegates in these states and replace them with pro-Eisenhower delegates; they called this proposal "Fair Play". Although Taft and his supporters angrily denied this charge, the convention voted to support Fair Play 658 to 548, and Taft lost many Southern delegates. Eisenhower also received a boost when several uncommitted state delegations, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, decided to support him; the removal of many pro-Taft Southern delegates and the support of the uncommitted states decided the nomination in Eisenhower's favor. However, the mood at the convention was one of the most bitter and emotional in American history. When Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, a Taft supporter, pointed at Governor Dewey on the convention floor and accused him of leading the Republicans "down the road to defeat", mixed boos and cheers rang out from the delegates, and there were even fistfights between some Taft and Eisenhower delegates. In the end Eisenhower took the nomination on the first ballot; to heal the wounds caused by the battle he went to Taft's hotel suite and met with him. The Convention then chose young Senator Richard Nixon of California as Eisenhower's running mate; it was felt that Nixon's credentials as a slashing campaigner and anti-Communist would be valuable. Most historians now believe that Eisenhower's nomination was primarily due to the feeling that he was a "sure winner" against the Democrats; most of the delegates were conservatives who would probably have supported Taft if they felt he could have won the general election. The balloting at the Republican Convention went: (Richard C. Bain and Judith H. Parris, Convention Decisions and Voting Records, pp. 280-286):
|Presidential Balloting, RNC 1952|
|Ballot||1st Before Shifts||1st After Shifts|
|Dwight D. Eisenhower||595||845|
|Robert A. Taft||500||280|
|Thomas E. Dewey||1||0|
Eisenhower campaigned by attacking Korea, Communism and Corruption--that is, what the Republicans regarded as the failures of the outgoing Truman administration to deal with these issues. The Republicans blamed the Democrats for the military's failure to be fully prepared to fight in Korea; they accused the Democrats of "harboring" Communist spies within the federal government; and they blasted the Truman administration for the numbers of officials who had been accused of various crimes. In return, the Democrats criticized Senator McCarthy and other GOP conservatives as "fearmongers" who were recklessly trampling on the civil liberties of government employees. Many Democrats were particularly upset when Eisenhower, on a scheduled campaign swing through Wisconsin, decided not to give a speech he had written criticizing McCarthy's methods, and then allowed himself to be photographed shaking hands with McCarthy as if he supported him. Despite these mishaps, however, Eisenhower had retained his enormous personal popularity from his leading role in the Second World War, and huge crowds turned out to see him around the nation. His campaign slogan, "I Like Ike", was one of the most popular in American history. Stevenson concentrated on giving a series of thoughtful speeches around the nation; he too drew large crowds. Although his style thrilled intellectuals and academics, some political experts wondered if he were speaking "over the heads" of most of his listeners, and they dubbed him an "egghead", based on his baldness and intellectual demeanor. Eisenhower maintained a comfortable lead in the polls throughout most of the campaign.
A notable event of the 1952 campaign concerned a scandal that emerged when Richard Nixon, Eisenhower's running mate, was accused by several newspapers of receiving $18,000 in undeclared "gifts" from wealthy donors. Nixon, who had been accusing the Democrats of hiding crooks, found himself on the defensive. Eisenhower and his aides considered dropping Nixon from the ticket and picking another running mate. However, Nixon saved his political career with a dramatic half-hour speech on live television. During the speech Nixon denied the charges against him, listed all of his modest financial assets, and complimented his wife Pat on her plain cloth coat — the wives of some Truman administration officials had been accused of accepting expensive fur coats from lobbyists. Nixon tearfully concluded his speech by mentioning that one of his supporters had given his daughters a gift — a dog named "Checkers" — and that he would not return it, because his daughters loved it. The Checkers speech led thousands of Republicans to wire Eisenhower urging him to keep Nixon on the ticket, which he did.
Both campaigns made use of television ads. A notable ad for “Ike” Eisenhower was an issue-free, feel-good animated cartoon with a soundtrack song by Irving Berlin called I Like Ike. For the first time the candidates' personal medical history was released publicly, as was the candidate's financial histories (thanks to Nixon's speech). Near the end of the campaign Eisenhower, in a major speech, announced that if he won the election he would go to Korea to see if he could end the war. His great military prestige, combined with the public's weariness with the conflict, gave Eisenhower the final boost he needed to win.
On election day — November 4, 1952 — Eisenhower won a decisive victory, taking over 55% of the popular vote and winning 39 of the 48 states. He took four Southern states that the Republicans had won only once since Reconstruction: Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, and Texas.
Source (Electoral Vote):
Election results in these states were within ten percentage points. Colors represent the winning party, using the present-day convention in which red indicates Republican and blue indicates Democrat.