Why did Truman's approval ratings seesaw so wildly?


Three times in his presidency, his approval dropped 25 points or more in a span of less than a year. And twice, he rebounded from those drops by shooting up in popularity by 30 points or more in less than six months! Is this best explained by simply surmising that Gallup was still getting the kinks out of their methodology, or was there something real being observed? And if the latter, how does the body public change its mind so dramatically about a president five times in a five year period? Certainly you can’t point to anything so whiplash-inducing with any of the presidents who followed him.

I’ve read several different biographies of him and I think the reason for the popularity swings that you cite is the fact that Truman was not afraid to make decisions. He was President and he acted Presidential. Many of actions were initially unpopular but were then accepted when more background became publicly known.

Can’t provide any specific cites but that my opinion, YMMV. I’ve always thought that he was probably the last President who really didn’t give a shit what the polls said, he did what he thought was right.

The chart starts with '46, so I assume he has an initially high approval because he nuked Japan and ended WWII. But after that there were a lot of economic problems causing the first big dip, and several major global events that could have made his approval bounce afterward like that. He was relatively unknown when he ascended, and didn’t have a clear cut ideology. So I think the public was still forming their opinions of him one event at a time. I’d also question the accuracy of the polling. They got more careful about stuff like that after President Dewey was elected.

He wasn’t Roosevelt and was nearly universally despised as someone who was unqualified; a mere haberdasher from Missouri (he briefly helped run a clothing store). Taking over for someone who had been in the White house for most of many peoples’ lives didn’t inspire confidence.

His stock went up considerably when the war in Europe ended and he dropped the A-bombs on Japan. After the war, he was able to eke out a win over Dewie in 1948, primarily due to his whistle-stop campaign, during which he able to point to the Berlin Airlift as a hugely successful foreign policy move.

The economy is what basically tanked him post-war. There was a severe recession following the war, with huge cuts in military spending and reduction in forces. Then came the accusations that he was soft on communism, and the McCarthy witch-hunts started in 1950. Right at this time, North Korea started its aggression against the South and Truman called for a naval blockade. He (and the public) was informed there weren’t enough ships to carry it out. Too few troops were sent to Korea and Truman was attacked for the lack of readiness of the US military, an accusation that was arguably correct.

Accusations of corruption in his cabinet and the revolt of officers like MacArthur further eroded his popularity, and he was pretty much done. He wisely decided not to run in 1952, even though he was eligible under a grandfather clause in the new 22nd amendment.

What Chefguy said. When I asked my 86 yo father why this was the case he said that FDR was a tough act to follow, and that Truman was his own man… for better or worse.

But Chefguy, the volatility I’m talking about all came before 1950, and McCarthyism, the Korean War, etc. Specifically, I’m looking at the latter half of the 1940s. He started 1946 with a rating in the 60s, and ended the year in the low 30s. But then by Memorial Day 1947, never mind: he’s back in the 60s again. That would be strange enough within an eighteen month span, but the seesawing is just getting started. Spring 1948 sees him having dropped to the 30s again. By Inauguration Day 1949 he’s near 70, only to drop thirty points by the end of the year. (After that it was a continued, more gradual, decline; although obviously his post-presidential approval had another big rise in store.)

There are plenty of other examples of presidents whose approval plummeted, or who had upward spikes, followed by declines, like both Bushes did. But no one else was in the 60s, then the 30s, then the 60s, then the 30s, then the 60s, then the 30s. Voters don’t normally change their minds back and forth (and back, and forth, and back, and…) like that.

I’m old enough to remember talking about him weekly in grade school civics classes. I think the above quote is pretty much what many of us came to feel in retrospect.

Spring 1948 is when President Truman issued an Executive Order desegrating the armed forces of the US. Not wildly popular at the time.

Voters are people just like us. Good days, bad days, rash decisions, well thought out decisions.

I’m amused to see that every president save Clinton started more popular than they left office. (Although one presumes that JFK would have been sky high had they done a posthumous

My understanding is that the Dewey debacle is not due to poll accuracy however. Of course, election polling will correlate with approval polling, but there are distinct differences. IIRC, Gallup thought that all voters were decided by the end of the party conventions. As a consequence, he felt little need to poll after Labor Day - after all, the voters were strongly in favor of Dewey. Of course, there were massive shifts in the electorate in the last two months, which have been attributed to Truman’s campaigning, the improving economy, and crop prices.

So why then haven’t they whipsawed back and forth in their opinions of subsequent presidents?

One reason that has just been brought forward is the sampling accuracy. It’s possible the swings are nothing but artifacts of poll taking, not actual approval values. That must be taken into account way before an argument can begin.

I thought that would come up. I wasn’t blaming the pollsters for the premature headlines. But just as the east coast media wasn’t really paying much attention to anything past the Central Time Zone, neither were pollsters. And their samples were probably skewed in many other ways also. Polls results are always suspect, so I question the accuracy of the later results as well.

Wiki has a pretty good piece on Truman’s administration. You might take a look at that.

Remember also that Truman wasn’t elected to his first term, which ran pretty long. People didn’t have a preconceived notion of what he would do as president. The bumps indicate people making up their minds about him. The graph on his second term isn’t all that remarkable looking. And as has been mentioned, Truman wasn’t one to make decisions based on polls. That alone would result in swings like that.

Absent a better explanation, I find this the most plausible hypothesis. I simply don’t believe nearly a third of the electorate would alternately approve, disapprove, approve, disapprove, approve, and finally once again disapprove of a president in a four year span–and the fact that it hasn’t happened since then, or even *approached *happening again (Reagan came the closest, which wasn’t very close at all), in the six decades that followed, certainly doesn’t disabuse me of that belief.

That’s a very good point. FDR’s vice presidents weren’t exactly prominent in the national stage.

They say he faced problems unprecedented in US presidential history: nuclear war, nuclear cold war, shadow wars, unbridled population and economic growth.

Have you been following the current election cycle at all? The public is fickle. While swings could be a factor of polling error, history is quite clear that it was an uncertain and volatile time, presided over by a president that nobody was sure of. I would not be so quick to dismiss that as the absence of a better explanation.

Yes, I have been following the current election cycle, and quite closely (as I, a political junkie, have been following elections closely for decades now). Pretty much every day, I check Talking Points Memo, Political Wire, Slate, and sometimes Daily Kos; look at the polls on Real Clear Politics; get analysis on Sullivan and Fallows. And I don’t see anything in recent history like the swings of the late '40s for Truman.

Obama’s approval rating was in the low 60s for the first four and a half months he was in office. Then it began to decline, reaching the low 50s by August. Since then (August 2009) it has never gone higher than 53 or lower than 42. That is nothing like Truman’s swinging from 60s to 30s to 60s to 30s to 60s to 30s.

I’m not sure why you brought up the election, because the race between Obama and Romney has ranged even less. If you mean to refer to the wildness of the GOP primary season, that’s apples and oranges to compare that with the approval rating, among the *entire *public, of a sitting president. Maybe even more like apples and bananas.

Relatively unknown, yes, but he was a strong FDR supporter and a pretty stalwart Democrat for his day.

The Berlin Airlift had only been underway for only about five months at the time of the Nov. 1948 general election, and although it was off to a good start, I think it would be an exaggeration to say it was “hugely successful” when the voters went to the polls. It continued until Sept. 1949.

Truman’s commitment of ground troops in South Korea was far more important than any blockade, and I’ve never read that there were insufficient ships for U.S. Navy operations off the Korean coast. The Navy never lost command of the seas during the Korean War, and naval gunfire and carrier operations were an important part of its efforts.