New Study: Many Jewish Voters Turned Against Truman in ’48

by Rafael Medoff

President Harry Truman received far fewer Jewish votes in the 1948 election than previously believed–and almost lost the race as a result, according to a new study by the Wyman Institute.

The study, “Did the Jewish Vote Cost Truman New York? A New Look at the 1948 Presidential Race,” was authored by Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff. (To read the full study, click here.)

Truman triumphed in 1948 by eking out extremely narrow victories over his Republican challenger, Gov. Thomas Dewey, in a number of states that had large numbers of electoral votes; New York had the most, with 47. Truman lost New York by just 60,959 votes, or .98%.

Had Truman won in New York, the overall race would not have been nearly so close–and the famous Chicago Tribune headline, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN,” would never have appeared. And the Wyman Institute’s study shows that Jewish Democrats who defected to third-party candidate Henry A. Wallace cost Truman New York.

Historians and journalists have almost universally portrayed Wallace as having had no impact on the presidential race. He received only 2.3% nationally, but in New York State, Wallace won 8.25%. His vote total in New York was 509,559–far higher than Gov. Dewey’s narrow margin of 61,000 over President Truman.

Analysts of Jewish voting patterns have claimed that Truman won 75% of Jewish votes in 1948, primarily because of their gratitude for his prompt recognition of the new State of Israel. According to the conventional wisdom, Wallace won 15% of the Jewish vote, and Dewey 10%.

But a new re-examination of raw Gallup polling data from 1948, by Prof. Herbert F. Weisberg of Ohio State University, suggests that the Jewish vote for Wallace, especially in New York State, was much greater than has previously been recognized.

The Wyman Institute’s analysis of the neighborhood-by-neighborhood voting statistics for 1948 in heavily-Jewish sections of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx found Truman received only about 50% of the Jewish vote–the lowest total for any Democratic in modern presidential election history (except for Jimmy Carter).

Wallace received about 24% in those heavily Jewish neighborhoods. Most Wallace voters evidently were former supporters of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who would have voted for Truman if Wallace had not been in the race. In other words, large numbers of New Yorkers, including many Jews, abandoned Truman for Wallace.

The Wyman Institute’s study shos that Wallace made Israel a major campaign issue, especially during his appearances in the New York City area. He repeatedly accused Truman of betraying Israel by refusing to provide weapons during its 1948 War of Independence and portrayed himself as the most pro-Israel candidate in the race. During the months before the election, New York City’s newspapers gave consistent prominence to news about the dangers facing Israel, the U.S. arms embargo, and the State Department’s pro-Arab slant.

Although some Jewish supporters of Wallace undoubtedly were ideological leftwing partisans who backed him because of other issues, socialist sentiment was rapidly diminishing the American Jewish community by the late 1940s. In all likelihood, the massive Jewish defections to Wallace in New York State were largely caused by Truman’s arms embargo on Israel and other pro-Arab actions by his administration during the autumn of 1948.

The substantial Jewish vote for Wallace in New York, motivated to a significant extent by unhappiness over the administration’s Israel policy, is what cost Truman the state and nearly cost him the national election. The episode demonstrates that the Jewish vote has played a more significant role in American presidential political history than has been commonly realized, and points to the possibility of significant shifts in the Jewish vote away from the Democrats when a Democratic candidate is perceived as unfriendly to Israel.

Dr. Medoff presented his research at the Wyman Institute’s September 23 conference on “The Jewish Vote, the Holocaust, and Israel,” at Fordham Law School in New York City.

September 2012