Rallies Along The Rails
Harry S. Truman campaigns from the platform of a private railcar in 1948. Photo: US National Archives
Origin of the Whistlestop Campaign
In 1836, William Henry Harrison became the first presidential candidate to give speeches from the back of a train. However, it was Theodore Roosevelt who, over six decades later, launched the practice that would become known as the whistlestop campaign. Roosevelt’s high-energy succession of rapid-fire, trackside rallies reached deep into America’s heartland and fundamentally changed the way candidates interact with the electorate.
The term ‘whistlestop’ was borrowed from the railroads’ practice of signaling stops at small, occasionally used railway stations. Incoming trains announced their approach with a blast of the steam whistle. If passengers, mail, or freight were waiting to be picked up, the depot master raised a tower signal alerting the engineer to stop. If no stop was necessary, a different signal told the engineer he could pass on through. Similarly, as presidential candidates criss-crossed the country by train, the engineer whistled his approach to the station, the candidate addressed crowds from the rear platform of a private railcar, and the train traveled on to the next town. The entire stop might last only ten to twenty minutes.
Before the whistlestop, many presidential candidates avoided travel altogether, choosing to woo voters at home over the proverbial chicken dinner or to deliver speeches from their front porch. In 1888, Benjamin Harrison campaigned from his residence in Indianapolis. In 1896, William McKinley’s orations from his front porch in Canton, Ohio, drew crowds that aggregated some 700,000 over the duration of the campaign. This form of low-key persuasion was considered dignified, and it was left to surrogates to fan out around the country spreading the candidate’s message.
Theodore Roosevelt - 1900
In 1900, McKinley again chose to wage a front-porch campaign. However, his running mate, Theodore Roosevelt, took to the rails in a populist bid to connect directly with voters in small towns throughout rural America. In one of the most famous political campaigns in U.S. history, Roosevelt embarked on a whirlwind crusade that encompassed 480 stops in 23 states. Everywhere he went, Roosevelt was met by admiring throngs of hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of citizens eager to see and hear a candidate for national office. The grueling schedule paid off. Eighteen of the states he toured gave a plurality of votes to the McKinley-Roosevelt ticket, a gain of five states for the Republicans over 1896.
Since that first whistlestop campaign, every U.S. president except William G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Donald Trump has used the private railcar tour to connect with voters in small-town America. The interaction between candidates and the electorate has continued to evolve through the decades, yet despite the advent of large rallies, televised debates, and social media messaging, the allure and romance of the legendary whistlestop continues to entice presidential candidates to hold rallies along the rails.
Truman's 1948 Whistlestop Campaign
Harry S. Truman’s 1948 whistlestop campaign saved his presidency.
Elected in November 1944 as Vice President in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, Truman had served a mere 82 days in office when Roosevelt died of a massive stroke. As he took the presidential oath of office in April 1945, Truman faced monumental challenges abroad: rebuilding postwar Europe, ending the war in the Pacific, curbing the spread of Communism, and the emergence of a Cold War. On the home front, the nation was struggling to transition to a peacetime economy. Labor disputes, inflation, shortages of consumer goods, and a national railroad strike headlined the list of domestic woes.
To make matters worse, Truman had difficulty getting his message across. His personality was less charismatic and his speech-making style less polished than his predecessor and his political rivals. By June 1948, his popularity had dropped from 80 to 35 precent. Truman’s opponent, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, was considered such a shoo-in that the pollsters stopped polling. Truman’s chances of reelection looked bleak.
In a risky strategic gamble, the pint-sized, plucky haberdasher from Missouri resolved to appeal directly to the American people in a whistlestop tour. The campaign took place over the summer and fall of 1948 and consisted of three legs: a cross-country trip to California, a six-day sprint through the Midwest, and a ten-day run through the large population centers of the Northeast.
As he made his way through town after town, Truman relentlessly attacked the Republican Congress as “do nothing” and uninterested in “…the welfare of the common, everyday man.” He tailored his speeches to each community, using local references and mentioning hometown events. Crowds turned out to see him at all hours. In the days before television, it was a rare opportunity for rural Americans to see a famous dignitary in person.
Face-to-face with ordinary Americans, Truman was more confident and relaxed. His off-the-cuff, energetic style played well in the heartland. He understood their needs, and his homey, wise-cracking tone spoke their language. Speaking from the rear platform of a private railcar, communication with the assembled crowds was immediate and direct. If during a speech someone yelled at him, Truman answered back. People began calling him by his first name, and “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” became the battle cry of his uphill campaign battle.
“Everyone in town and others from the surrounding area came to see
the man who thought we were important enough to address.”
Pacific Junction, Iowa
Truman barnstormed the country nearly to election day. He traveled 31,000 miles and made 352 speeches, many of them to voters in cities and towns most Americans had never heard of. When he returned home to Missouri on October 31st, he was still behind in the polls. In a final appeal to the electorate Truman wrote, “From the bottom of my heart I thank the people of the United States for their cordiality to me and their interest in the affairs of this great nation and of the world. I trust the people, because when they know the facts, they do the right thing . . .”
An incorrect banner headline appeared on the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune (later Chicago Tribune) on November 3, 1948.
The election results were a stunner. Truman carried 28 states, winning 24,105,812 votes or 49.6 percent of the popular vote to Dewey’s 21,970,065 or 45.1 percent. Truman’s come-from-behind, whistle-stop tour was an unexpected success. The four-month marathon on the rails energized his underdog campaign and pushed a struggling president to a second term.
Click on selected cities in the box at right to see images and hear speeches
from Truman’s 1948 Midwest campaign tour.