1952: Saluting Eisenhower
Without evident intent, the 1949 primary law had been ideally crafted to advance the political fortunes of General Dwight Eisenhower. While serving as the supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Ike was willing to be drafted for the GOP presidential nomination, yet he wanted no involvement in the 1952 primaries. New Hampshire's election law allowed him to enter the race without any overt decision, and thus he was never in violation of Army regulations prohibiting political activity.
The initial national chairman for the Draft-Eisenhower drive was Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. On January 6, 1952, he announced at a Washington press conference that the general would allow his name to remain on the ballot in the first primary state — after another Ike backer, Governor Sherman Adams, filed the petitions.
Under the leadership of Adams, the Eisenhower effort would find New Hampshire a highly suitable place to help convince the general he had broad appeal and should return from his military post in France and seek the Oval Office.
A for more difficult circumstance confronted his main opponent: "Mr. Republican," Ohio Senator Robert Taft. This would be his third and final attempt to win his party's nomination. Taft deliberated for weeks whether to enter the Granite State test. On the day before the deadline, he decided to take the plunge, risking a significant test of his popularity in an Eastern state, not his strongest region.
During January and February, a campaign by surrogates for Eisenhower and Taft was conducted throughout the 10 counties of New Hampshire. In March, during the lost week of the campaign, the Ohio senator took a bold gamble — a three-day, 28-community tour of 500 miles designed to deliver a damaging blow to the Eisenhower drive.
Taft's tour created a minor sensation as he dashed about, accompanied by two busloads of reporters from around the country. On March 6, he traveled up the Merrimack Valley, through the Lakes Region, and finally to the mill city of Berlin.
The next day the Republican hopeful blitzed down the Connecticut River Valley and then to Manchester, while increasing the stridency of his attacks on the unpopular Truman administration and vowing to "shun a me-too campaign which won't even convert a handful of New Dealers." The final day of the tour Taft campaigned in the Seacoast.
The Manchester Union Leader reported in its lead story after Taft's address in the Queen City: "Winding up the second day of his 'fighting' campaign for support in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary next Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Robert A. Taft told a cheering throng of close to 1,500 persons in Manchester lost night that General Eisenhower's supporters were doing him a 'dis-service' by forcing him into a contest in which 'it is impossible for him to take a position on any controversial issue, or let the people know where he stands.'
"The surprising turnout at the Practical Arts Auditorium — much larger than the crowd that assembled at Sweeney Post hall last week for the Ike song, dance and politics show — climaxed a back-breaking trip for 'Mr. Republican,' during which he was hailed by record-shattering throngs at every stop, from Coos to Hillsborough county."
The trip, although garnering considerable attention in the press and drawing very large crowds, put Taft's personality on display. He was much the loser for it. The Ohio senator did not have the touch with the common man that Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver was showing with the Democratic electorate. Taft also lacked the aura of warmth and moderation that General Eisenhower had been able to display even from the distance of his military post in Paris.
The political atmosphere in 1952 was saturated with debate over foreign policy: the Korean War, increasing tension with the Soviet Union, and the role the nation would play in world affairs.
Taft was vulnerable in this area — partly for his isolationist sentiments, but also for his Senate votes in the late '30s and early '40s in opposition to measures to prepare the nation's defenses as World War II loomed.
Governor Adams, attempting to regain the momentum lost by Eisenhower while Taft stumped, took to the radio airwaves and newspapers in the final days of the campaign and attacked the conservative senator. Adams charged, "The senator has made it clear that he has no real basic understanding of our obligations and responsibilities in the world today."
The Taft camp hoped to claim a moral victory if it could capture just four out of the 14 delegates. His state campaign manager predicted that Taft Would win six delegates and the March 11 preference poll by 5,000 votes.
It was not to be. As Adams later expressed it, "it wasn't a tight victory, either."
Eisenhower won 46,661 to 35,838 and swept all 14 delegates. The forces for the general won all 10 counties with their 59 percent showing in Merrimack County the strongest and a 116-vote victory in Carroll County the weakest.
Eisenhower won all 12 cities except Manchester; his strongest showing was in the capital city of Concord with 69 percent. Taft won Manchester by 818 votes but lost the combined city vote 17,775 to 12,573.
Taft was defeated in the towns as well, for Ike carried 138 of the 223 towns, winning by a total of 5,600 votes in territory that had been considered "Taft country." Of the results, Senator Taft commented, "I am somewhat disappointed."
The results were a major national news story. The New York Times printed an entire page of editorial reaction from more than 40 newspapers. The Denver Post editorialized: "The big noise in the New Hampshire vote was the proof that Eisenhower doesn't necessarily have to be here to get votes. Taft was not merely beaten; but was demolished. Out of this first test, the Eisenhower forces have emerged with the evidence of their candidate's appeal to the people."
The mandate from New Hampshire alone was not enough to convince the general to submit his request for resignation from the military. That would take an election a week later, the "Minnesota miracle" when, with no meaningful organized effort, 108,000 Republicans in the general's name, That outpouring convinced him within two weeks to ask President Truman for permission to resign. The request was granted on April 12, effective the first day of June.
Upon his return, Ike would still have to battle a determined and tenacious Taft to the end of the first ballot at the Chicago convention in early July.
The 1952 primary produced fireworks in both parties. Incumbent Democratic President Harry Truman was challenged and, to the shock of all, was defeated by a first-term senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver.
At the outset, the President had wanted to ignore the Granite State primary completely. His name was entered in the preference poll without his consent. When asked about his political plans at a news conference the last day of January, he informed reporters that the primaries were just so much "eyewash" and he could have the nomination simply for the asking.
This gratuitous remark drew critical reaction all over the state, for New Hampshirites were just beginning to savor the new experience of being the center of national attention.
At the suggestion of party leaders, Truman reversed his position. Kefauver, not wishing to alienate the Truman camp any more than necessary, offered to withdraw from the popular balloting if the President would do the same, contesting only the delegates. Confident of any easy victory, the Truman leaders rejected the proposal.
As the chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Interstate Crime, Kefauver had become something of a national hero through its televised hearings in 1950 and 19511. Yet he had a difficult time generating enthusiasm when he toured the state for two weeks in February and March.
New Hampshire Senator Charles Tobey had served on the Crime Committee with Kefauver, and the two were close. Although a Republican and an Eisenhower partisan, Tobey fed names to Kefauver's aides to start their contact work in the state.
He also lent a car, as a letter among the Tobey Papers at Dartmouth College sent to one of his neighbors in Temple, dated February 7, 1952, indicates: "I am very much interested in the campaign of my good friend and colleague Senator Estes Kefauver, who is trying to get the Democratic nomination for president. He and some of his cohorts are coming to the state soon. They are planning to travel around the state and have no car, so I have offered them the use of my Chevrolet which is in the barn. So if you get a telephone call from a Mr. White or a Mr. Neese, asking about the car, will you turn it over to them and instruct them in the devious workings of a Chevrolet? Point out that the chains they will need are in the back. They will return the car when they get through with it."
Taft's tour resulted in considerable hoopla, but Kefauver traveled with much less fanfare. With his wife Nancy, a few aides, reporters and supporters in his wake, he quietly and methodically worked main streets, factories, newspaper offices, county courthouses and other gathering places.
An oak of a man at 6-foot-3, Kefauver would stick out his huge hand and say, "Hello, I'm Estes Kefauver and I'm running for President. I'd appreciate your vote."
Kefauver began to recruit a group of people generally new to politics. He did not follow the normal course of campaigning by seeking out a few important politicians. To him, everyone was important. He had a great instinct for working the ground level of politics, and that is just what he did as he ambled about for those two weeks.
The Truman advocates were so confident of victory, that they did not swing into action until just 10 days prior to the vote. As if to ensure the complacency of their efforts, sweeping predictions of an easy victory were made.
At the end of the campaign, the Tennessee senator was not in an upbeat mood due to the poor turnouts his appearances had received. In the city of Keene (population 15,600) only 30 people took the trouble to hear him speak. In the mill and labor city of Claremont (12,800) only 60 turned out in a large hall, whereupon all were invited down to the front for an informal chat with the candidate. An evening speech in Nashua had attracted for fewer citizens than a morning speech by Senator Taft.
Just as in November 1948, when the pollsters and pundits were humiliated by forecasting a Thomas Dewey victory, once again the experts come up short. For instance, an Associated Press account on March 7 predicted that Truman would receive from 65 to 75 percent of the vote.
The actual results prove to be a clear and convincing call for Truman not to seek the nation's highest post again. Kefauver won — 19,800 votes to Truman's 15,927. The challenger carried eight out of the 10 counties and swept the entire delegate slate with his bond of unknowns.
Of his stunning-upset, the senator stated: "The results indicate that a good energetic campaign and supporting group can beat a strong machine...There is a need for new vigor and ideas in the Democratic Party."
The Kefauver win resulted in a five-page cover story about the senator in the March 24 edition of Time magazine. Yet Kefauver was not the first person on the cover of a national magazine that year in connection with New Hampshire's decision. The January 14 Newsweek featured Alec Pringle, a farmer in the Upper Valley community of Lebanon, with his barn and the obligatory snow-covered landscape in the background, on a day the temperature dropped to 20 below zero.
Just days after his primary defeat, on March 29, President Truman told a Jefferson-Jackson dinner audience of 5,300 in Washington: "I shall not be a candidate for re-election. I have served my country long and, I think, efficiently and honestly. I shall not accept a renomination. I do not feel that it is my duty to spend another four years in the White House."
Kefauver would win every primary he contested except Florida. He won a solid majority of the primary votes cast nationally. But that grassroots strength was never translated into a majority of delegates at the Chicago convention.
At that convention in July, Truman and other party chiefs were able to deny the Tennessean the nomination for which he had fought so valiantly. The task of competing against General Eisenhower was won by Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. Eisenhower won by a landslide of 6.6 million votes in November and ended two decades of Democratic control of the presidency.