The famous photo of President Truman with the wrong headline in 1948. Photo by Byron Rollins, now in public domain.

Nobody wants to be J. Loy “Pat” Maloney.

Or Arthur Sears Henning, for that matter.

Those names may mean nothing to you but they still mean something to journalists, at least those with long memories and an appreciation for history.

Even if you don’t know their names, though, you know their work.

Maloney was the managing editor of the Chicago Daily Tribune, as it was known then, who signed off the infamous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Henning was the reporter who wrote the story beneath the headline, which began: “Dewey and Warren won a sweeping victory in the Presidential election yesterday.” (No first names, no other identification – where was the copy editor?)

That headline – immortalized in the famous United Press International photograph of a jubilant Harry Truman holding up the paper two days later during a stop in St. Louis – stands as the most infamous example of journalists making the wrong call on election night.

It’s not the only one, just the one that has made its way into pop culture, where it remains a cautionary tale more than seven decades later.

We remember “Dewey Defeats Truman” but not “Hughes Defeats Wilson,” although perhaps we should.

The 1916 election was much like 1948: The Republican challenger led the Democratic incumbent in the early returns that came in first from the East, then lost later in the evening as the Western states came in. Newspapers could have – should have – gone with a more inconclusive headline but some misread those early returns.

In 1916, multiple newspapers – including The World and The Sun, two important newspapers in New York – published headlines declaring that Republican Charles Evans Hughes had defeated President Woodrow Wilson. It wasn’t just newspaper headlines, either. In Baltimore, the Baltimore Sun and the local utility devised a scheme to announce the results using the latest technology – electric lights. If Wilson was reelected, the lights would blink five times. If Hughes won, the lights would blink three times. If the race were in doubt, the lights would blink four times. At 10:15 p.m, the Sun sent word to the Gas and Electric Company that Hughes would surely win – so the lights blinked three times and many Baltimore residents went to bed assuming the contest was over. As legend has it, a reporter called Hughes’ house the next morning, asking for his reaction to the results. A butler supposedly informed the journalist: “The president is sleeping.” To which the journalist cracked: “When he wakes up, tell him he isn’t the president anymore.”

In 1948, political polling was in its infancy and the pollsters used a methodology that has since been discarded – interviewers were free to order their questions anyway they wanted. Today, great care is taken on question orders so as not to induce any bias in the questionnaire. In any case, everybody knew Dewey was going to win. Gallup stopped polling two weeks before the election because the outcome seemed so certain, thus pollsters missed the late surge toward Truman. Life magazine had a preelection edition with a picture of Tom Dewey on the cover with the headline: “The Next President of the United States.” The actual counting of the votes seemed a mere formality. The Chicago Daily Tribune had a special problem on election night: Its linotype operators were on strike; the paper switched to a new method of publishing that involved photographing the typewritten words and then putting an engraving of that photo on the printing press. Because it was all new, the paper had earlier deadlines than usual. When the first returns came in, Dewey was ahead, as expected – the Republican base then was in the Northeast, so what was being counted were the most pro-Dewey parts of the country. Maloney consulted Henning. Henning assured his editor that Dewey had it in the bag. Henning was legendary in journalism circles. But this time he was wrong, and so were a lot of others. The paper changed the headline for later editions but not by much: “G.O.P. Wins the White House!” Even after Truman pulled ahead, NBC commentator H.V. Kaltenborn confidently predicted on the air that the lead wouldn’t hold. Not until the next morning was it clear to all that Truman’s lead was secure: At 11:14 a.m on that Wednesday, Dewey telegrammed his concession to Truman.

By 2000, we got our presidential results by television, not by newspapers or blinking lights. That year multiple news organizations – most famously CNN – reported that Al Gore would win Florida and, with it, the presidency. We all know how that worked out.

All this was a long time before the phrase “fake news” ever was a thing or candidates started disputing the results even before they were in.

These stories serve as useful reminders of two important lessons. First, the early returns often are not indicative of the total vote. Ideally, we should have all learned that by now but it still bears repeating. Second, here’s the point I want to drive home today: The news media has no role – none whatsoever – in deciding who wins an election. We journalists might call an election, to be sure, but that call has no force of power at all. The only people who truly call elections sit on the State Board of Elections. The only reason that such calls by news organizations are taken seriously is because many journalists spend a lot of time studying election trends and are presumably experts on the subject. And most of the time we get it right. The times we don’t are the infamous ones – so while we await tonight’s returns, let’s look at how such calls get made.

The short version is that it’s often easy to look at the early returns and make reasonable projections about how the rest of the night will go. That’s because some localities tend to vote Democratic and others tend to vote Republican. When we see a locality start to deviate from that history, it likely means it’s a bad night for that party and a good night for the other one. Here’s a lesson from history we often forget: One of the first people to know that the 1948 election might not go the way it was predicted was Dewey himself. While he was winning in New York and New England, he realized his vote totals there were lower than what he had expected, suggesting some unexpected Republican softness that translated into Republican defeats in other states. I don’t know whether Dewey would have made a good president or not but he might have made a very good election night commentator.

For a more recent example, let’s go back to last year’s election for governor (my apologies to all my Democratic readers, but it’s the closest example available).

The first votes in after the polls closed at 7 p.m. came from rural areas in Southwest Virginia, which typically vote strongly Republican and were doing so again. What was different last year was that those early returns showed Glenn Youngkin running even stronger than most Republicans do there – the opposite of the problem Dewey saw on his election night. That alone wasn’t enough to call the election – we still needed to know how the vote elsewhere was going – but it was one important indicator that things might be going well for the Republican candidate.

At 8:32 p.m., it was clear that Radford – which normally votes Democratic – had gone for Youngkin. Again, that’s not enough to call an election but it was certainly an indication that at least in some places the returns were flowing in Youngkin’s favor.

Add in enough other examples and eventually you get to a point where, as a seasoned election observer, you feel safe in saying that Youngkin is going to win – even before all the votes are counted.

It’s a matter of knowing those historical trends so you know whether those early returns match them or not. In a close election, it’s also important to know where the votes are coming from. I remember the 2006 U.S. Senate race, where Democrat James Webb narrowly defeated Republican incumbent George Allen. Allen led most of the night – Republican-voting rural areas tend to come in first – but his lead narrowed and narrowed until the count came down to absentee votes in Northern Virginia. Allen was still ahead but it was clear to those of us who know Virginia’s election history that Webb was probably going to win – because the number of absentees yet to be counted far outnumbered Allen’s small lead, and we all knew from history that those absentees in Northern Virginia would break strongly for Webb. (I also don’t remember anybody calling that race; even if we think ourselves history nerds, we’re still reluctant to call a race for someone who is still behind although I’m sure there are examples out there of that happening.)

So how does all this relate to what will happen tonight? 

First, here are some of the places I’ll be looking at: In the 5th District race, I’ll be looking at Charlottesville and Albemarle County. That’s part of the Democratic base in that district. If Josh Throneburg is to upset Republican Bob Good, he needs to not just win there, he needs to win big – maybe bigger than big. Does he? I’ll also be looking at Prince Edward County, one of the few swing localities in that district. If Throneburg wins there, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll win the election – but if Good wins there, it’s hard to see how Throneburg puts together a majority. Lynchburg is another good place to look: It trends Republican but voted for Biden in 2020, the first time the city voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1948. 

In Roanoke’s city council election, it’s always useful to look at the precincts in the Raleigh Court and Williamson Road neighborhoods because they are often good indicators. If Republicans hope to win, they need to win along Williamson Road and hold down Democratic margins in Raleigh Court, and maybe even score a breakthrough here or there. And so forth and so on. Come back tonight and I’ll be posting live commentary on the results as they come in – by looking at those sorts of numbers. A note: Early voting in recent years has complicated much analysis because those votes have been counted under “absentee” precincts, which means we didn’t know which precincts those votes were coming from — and since early voting has trended Democratic, and in-person, day-of voting trended Republican, that further complicated. This year, thanks to a bill by state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, Virginia will be assigning early votes to the precincts where those voters live — so we can get a more traditional understanding of the results. If you’re a political junkie, you should thank Suetterlein for that bill, even if you don’t share his politics.

If a news organization calls a race for a candidate you don’t like, don’t get mad at them. These are the types of things they’re looking at. In a very few cases, in very close races, such calls might be very wrong. The national commentators may be national experts but they aren’t necessarily experts on every state at the state or local level. On election night 2020, some national commentators were getting freaked out because early returns in Virginia showed Donald Trump ahead. That simply showed their naivete: They seemed unaware that what they were seeing then were in-person votes from mostly rural areas, the most pro-Trump vote. Most voters that year, though, voted early – those votes were counted later and, when they were, Joe Biden pulled ahead in the state. Not a single Virginia journalist was fooled, but some national ones were. Conservatives like to say the best government is the one closest to the people; the same thing applies to news media, too. (Yes, I may be a little biased on that point.)

I’ve always been amused – and a little baffled – at why people accord such weight to whatever calls the news media makes, right or wrong. It’s like a sportscaster looking at the result of a football game in the fourth quarter and predicting that such-and-such a team will win. The sportscaster is probably right, but nobody records a “W” or “L” in the scorebook on the basis of what some sportscaster says – yet in 2000 Gore was ready to concede on the basis of network calls for Bush when, at the last minute, he got word that maybe Bush’s newfound lead wasn’t as secure as he thought. As a journalist, I appreciate the flattery, but politicians and partisans on all sides should remember that we have no real power in these matters. If somebody calls an election wrong, well, that’s embarrassing but it has no influence on what the State Board of Elections does.

The only poll that matters is the one on Election Day, the old saying goes. And the only call that matters is the one the election board makes. That’s not an old saying. That’s the law.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.