Conservative Republicans viewed the midterm outcome as a massive national revulsion against liberalism. The Chicago Tribune said that the American people had "won the greatest victory for the Republic since Appomattox," and the Hearst chain's New York Mirror declared: "It is like coming out of darkness into sunlight. Like feeling clean again after a long time in the muck."
But this perception grossly misconstrued the national mood. A Fortune magazine survey found that voters who had switched from supporting Democrats in 1944 to Republicans in 1946 were actually more liberal than Democrats who had stayed with their party. Most rejection of Democratic candidates, Fortune theorized, represented only momentary exasperation with shortages and high prices: if the incoming Republican 80th Congress concluded that voters had given them a mandate to turn back the clock, they might well jeopardize their very promising prospects.
That is exactly what happened. Republicans of the 80th Congress could take pride in impressive achievements in foreign affairs, including enactment of the Marshall Plan. But on domestic policy, they veered so sharply to the right that they alienated one segment of the electorate after another. They antagonized farmers by slashing funds for crop storage; irritated Westerners by cutting appropriations for reclamation projects; and, by failing to adopt civil rights legislation, squandered an opportunity to make further inroads among African-American voters. By pushing the anti-union Taft-Hartley legislation, passed over Truman's veto, they drove labor back into the president's arms. "The luckiest thing that ever happened to me," Truman remarked years later, "was the Eightieth Congress."
Instead of being the harbinger of longtime Democratic decline, the 1946 midterm election had the unexpected consequence of breathing new life into the Democratic Party. In 1948, Truman campaigned like a fighting cock against the "do-nothing, good-for-nothing 80th Congress," while largely ignoring the Republican nominee, Governor Dewey. In November 1948, to the astonishment of almost everyone and to the consternation of Republicans, Truman won reelection and Democrats recaptured Congress. They picked up nine seats in the Senate and so many seats in the House that they not only recouped their 1946 losses, but also erased all gains made by the GOP in three previous elections. Of the 50 Republican newcomers in the House in 1946 who ran for reelection, 35 went down to defeat.
In retrospect, the 1946 election was a turning point that did not turn. To be sure, it was not without consequences. An obscure Wisconsinite elected to the U.S. Senate for the first time in 1946 would give his name to an entire political era: McCarthyism. And when the American people would go to the polls in 1960, they were given a choice between two members of the Class of '46: Jack Kennedy and Dick Nixon. For the GOP, though, its 1946 triumph proved to be evanescent. After a Democratic sweep in 1958, only one Republican elected to the Senate for the first time in 1946 remained, and of the 75 who arrived in the House in 1946, just 3.
The significance of the hamburger election and its aftermath lies in a lesson bequeathed to politicians that remains vibrant 60 years later: winning midterm contests is gratifying, but if you misunderstand why you did it, your victories will melt away like an early November snow.
Historian William E. Leuchtenburg is the author of six books on FDR and his era. His most recent work is The White House Looks South: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, from Louisiana State University Press.