Sabatos Crystal Ball

1952 Presidential Election

UVA Center for Politics January 1st, 2008


For the first time in 24 years, the nation’s presidential race did not feature an incumbent president. President Truman, facing a disenchanted national electorate, made a last minute decision to abandon his bid for the Democratic nomination. Indeed, the public had grown weary of 20 years of Democrats in control of the White House, and a variety of developments had turned the national mood sour and had created a political environment favorable to change. Price controls, White House staff scandals, and especially bogged-down U.S. involvement in the Korean War all contributed to this unfavorable atmosphere for Democrats.

On the Republican side, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, an isolationist, and former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen were early announced candidates. World War II General Dwight Eisenhower, however, widely recognized as the only possible candidate with large popular appeal, soon entered the race at the behest of national GOP leaders. Although Eisenhower trailed Taft in delegate commitments going into Chicago’s national Republican convention, he quickly won delegate seating contests and easily won nomination on the first ballot.

The Democratic ticket took shape more slowly. President Truman, challenged early on by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, bowed out in April after suffering several primary losses. The president, however, remained influential behind the scenes: he and party activists orchestrated a draft movement for the liberal governor of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson. Although Stevenson rebuffed the drive up to the last minute, he quickly capitalized on his reputation as a reformer, overcame Kefauver’s lead in convention delegates and won the Democratic nomination on the third ballot.

In the general election campaign, Eisenhower hammered away at the failures of the Democratic administration. Citing the 1949 communist revolution in China, the long-running conflict in Korea, and Democratic corruption, he offered a message that soon resonated with an American public eager for change. The only threat to Eisenhower’s chances came when newspapers accused his running mate, a young California Senator by the name of Richard Nixon, of maintaining a hidden fund through which wealthy contributors would pay for his travel expenses. Nixon’s subsequent televised address, however, ended the public controversy when he cleverly told the nation a heartwarming story about a pet dog named “Checkers” he had received from a Texas contributor. Denying wrongdoing and winning the favor of the viewing audience, Nixon said that his children loved the dog and that he would keep it. Winning the North, West, and even several southern states, Eisenhower swept the White House with 442 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 89.