Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: NY Jews did not Vote Democrat for Truman in 1948

New research shows that when an incumbent Democratic president is perceived as unfriendly to Israel, there can be a shift in the traditional Democratic Jewish vote. Truman lost NY State for his arms embargo on Israel.
Published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 4:03 PM


So many political pundits expected the Republican nominee, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, to defeat President Harry Truman in 1948 that the editors of the Chicago Tribune confidently printed their post-election edition, with that infamously erroneous headline, before the final votes were counted.
Jewish voters played no role of consequence in that race, according to the standard histories of the period. Continuing their overwhelmingly Democratic voting pattern --and presumably grateful for Truman's quick recognition of the new State of Israel-- 75% of Jews cast their ballots for the president.
Or did they?
New research indicates that, in fact, President Truman received a much smaller share of the Jewish vote than has been assumed. Not only that, but this previously unrecognized Jewish shift had an important impact on the 1948 race and quite nearly cost Truman the election.
The story:
Truman triumphed in 1948 by winning extremely narrow victories in key states such as California (25 electoral votes), where he won by just 17,865 votes (.44%), and Ohio (25 electoral votes), which he won by 7,107 votes (.24%).
New York State, however, was by far the biggest prize in the race, with 47 electoral votes. (Nowadays New York is tied for third-most.) The Empire State had gone for the Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the previous four presidential elections. As FDR's vice president and standard bearer, Truman had good reason to think he could win there. If he had, the race would not nearly have been so close--and that famous Chicago Tribune headline would never have appeared.
In the end, however, Truman lost New York by just 60,959 votes, less than 1%. In his memoirs, eight years later, Truman was still grousing about the loss. He blamed the leftwing third-party candidate, Henry Wallace, for drawing votes away from him. Wallace won 8.25%, 509,559 votes, in New York State--almost ten times the size of Governor Dewey's margin over Truman.
Could it have been that it was the Jewish vote that delivered New York to Dewey?
Prof. Herbert F. Weisberg of Ohio State University is now in the process of conducting one of the most comprehensive analyses ever undertaken of Jewish voting patterns in U.S. presidential elections. His re-examination of raw Gallup polling data from 1948 has led him to conclude that both Dewey and Wallace received a much larger share of the Jewish vote than previously has been recognized.
The detailed exit polling used in recent years has provided a lot of information as to how Jews have voted in various elections. But there was no exit polling back in the 1940s. To examine Jewish voting patterns in New York in 1948, I had to do it the old-fashioned way: analyzing neighborhood-by-neighborhood election returns in heavily-Jewish sections of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. It's not foolproof, but it does offer some strong indications about voting trends--and those indications present a whole new picture of the Jewish vote and the 1948 presidential race.
For example, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, which was the most heavily-Jewish neighborhood in the United States, Wallace received 28% of the vote. Likewise in Coney Island, Boro Park, and other heavily Jewish areas, he won from 21% to 27%. In Jewish sections of the Bronx, such as the Grand Concourse and Mosholu Parkway, Wallace won 20%-24%. In Jewish neighborhoods of Manhattan, the results were similar: 28% for Wallace on the Lower East Side, 23% on the Upper West Side.
Overall, it seems Truman received only 50-55% of Jewish votes in New York, with Wallace winning about 25% and Dewey around 20%. That's the lowest share of the Jewish vote for any Democratic candidate in modern presidential election history, except Jimmy Carter.
How can this be explained?
Why would many Jewish voters, unlike other Americans, support a third party candidate whom virtually nobody believed had a serious chance of winning?
Didn't Jews see Truman as a strong friend of Israel?
As it turns out, not quite.
Truman's recognition of Israel was appreciated by the Jewish community, but the arms embargo he slapped on the Jewish State was deeply resented. Officially, the embargo applied to both the Arabs and the Israelis--an "even-handed" way of keeping the U.S. from being dragged into the Mideast war. But in practice, the Arabs had plentiful sources of weapons, while the Israelis had to beg, borrow, and steal the guns they needed to fend off the invading Arab armies.
The Arab war against Israel and the damaging impact of the embargo were major issues on the minds of New York Jewish voters in the summer and fall of 1948. Editorials in the New York Post called Truman's Israel policy "hypocritical and spineless" and denounced the embargo as "friendship--Truman-style." The afternoon daily PM it featured news about the Arab-Israeli war on its front page for thirty-two consecutive days at one point.
And Henry Wallace worked hard to turn it into a campaign issue. Not only did the platform of Wallace's Progressive Party call for "lifting the discriminatory arms embargo," but Wallace himself repeatedly brought it up in his campaign speeches. At one rally, he accused Truman of “playing politics with the lives of the people of Israel.” At another, he charged that "Jewish blood lies on the hands of Mr. Truman tonight."

White House aides noted with alarm that anti-Truman sentiment in the Jewish community had reached such heights that “The Democratic [congressmen] in New York are being booed and heckled...when they appear [before Jewish audiences] to make speeches.”
Soon there was open talk about Jewish defections to Wallace in New York. "New York Democrats hope that an American loan to the new state of Israel...will be granted in the next two months," the New York Times reported on September 7. "They believe this would win back into the Democratic column many voters who were estranged by the State Department's coolness to implementing the original United Nations partition decision."

According to the Times, Democratic strategists were focusing not on the threat from Dewey, but on the threat from Wallace and the need "to keep in the Democratic column two groups to whom the Wallace party has been making an open appeal, the Negro and Jewish voters."

White House aides noted with alarm that anti-Truman sentiment in the Jewish community had reached such heights that “The Democratic [congressmen] in New York are being booed and heckled...when they appear [before Jewish audiences] to make speeches.”
The New York Star called President Truman's last-minute pre-election statements praising Israel "a direct bid for a sizeable bloc of lukewarm New York City Democrats and independents. Many of the[m]...may even vote for Henry Wallace because of their dissatisfaction with Truman's record, particularly on Palestine."
Not every Jewish vote for Wallace was motivated by anger at Truman over Israel. Some of Wallace's Jewish support undoubtedly came from ideological leftwing partisans who backed him because of other issues. But radical-left sentiment was rapidly diminishing the American Jewish community by the late 1940s. Most Wallace voters were former FDR supporters who would have voted for Truman if Wallace had not been in the race.
These were Jewish voters who were furious that as Israel was fighting for its very existence, Truman refused to supply even a single bullet. As longtime Democrats and New Deal supporters, many could not bring themselves to vote for the Republican, Dewey--but by taking so many traditional Democratic votes away from Truman, they, in effect, gave the state to Dewey.
A Jewish vote for Wallace was a protest vote. They knew he had no chance of winning; they didn't care. They were sending Truman a message. It cost him New York--and nearly cost him the election.
Today, as in the 1940s, polls indicate that the majority of American Jews lean to the left on most domestic issues. But the substantial Jewish vote for Wallace in 1948, like the desertion of President Jimmy Carter by 60% of Jewish voters in 1980, indicates that when an incumbent Democratic president is perceived as unfriendly to Israel, there is a possibility of a significant shift in the Jewish vote. Such a shift was the deciding factor in New York in the 1948 presidential race.

Whether a comparable shift will affect the outcome in states such as Florida and Ohio this year remains to be seen.