The Legend of Louis Bean: Political Prophecy and the 1948 Election

Article excerpt

Louis Bean's life spanned nearly a century, and his public career encompassed the entire New Deal/Fair Deal era. A pioneer in the field of political analysis and forecasting, Bean became a legend in his own time in November 1948 as the sole "prophet" to have predicted President Harry Truman's stunning election victory over Republican nominee Thomas Dewey. The recent fiftieth anniversary of Truman's triumph marks a timely occasion to explore Bean's career and legend. Although Bean remained active in his field for another 25 years, he would never again enjoy the same level of prominence. After 1948, the nation's political climate changed in such a way as to render Bean's analytic methodology less useful. Whereas Bean had relied on economic swings as the basis for his analyses, in the early 1950s foreign policy factors, notably the Korean conflict, assumed greater importance. At the same time, new developments in the field of political analysis eclipsed Bean's influence. Ironically, the 1948 election that established his reputation as a prophet also marked the beginning of his decline as an analyst.

Louis Bean was born in Russian Lithuania in 1896 and came to the United States in 1906. His family settled in Laconia, New Hampshire, where his parents established a dry goods business. More interested in study than in business, Bean went from public schools to the University of Rochester, where his interests shifted from physical to social science. His college career interrupted by stateside military service during World War I, Bean subsequently received a bachelor's degree from Rochester, worked in labor management in the clothing industry, and earned a master's degree in business administration from Harvard.(1)

Bean's government service began in 1923 when he joined the Department of Agriculture's newly established Bureau of Agricultural Economics. In 1933 Bean became a member of Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace's inner circle of advisers. He served during World War II at the Board of Economic Warfare and then at the Bureau of the Budget, returning in the postwar period to the Department of Agriculture.(2)

Bean's work was founded upon the use of statistical analysis as a basis for policy formulation. It was this quantitative approach, which Bean first applied to agricultural economics and subsequently carried over to political analysis, for which he was initially hailed and of which in retrospect he was most proud. This statistical methodology, along with his intellectual and policy contributions, made Bean one of the archetypal New Deal social scientists, along with others such as Mordecai Ezekiel, Isador Lubin, and Gardiner C. Means. Bean stressed the contribution of social science to public service and worked on policy pronouncements and publications for top government officials, especially Henry Wallace.(3)

As an economic analyst, Bean utilized concepts that he later adapted to his study of politics. For example, he was very interested in business cycles and cognizant of secular (i.e., long-term) trends. He considered some economic developments anomalous, however, and was always careful to stress the uncertainty of future developments regardless of historical and statistical patterns.(4)

Bean's interest in quantitative political analysis dated to 1936. In a story he never tired of telling, Bean explained that he was captivated by a World Almanac compilation of state-by-state presidential election statistics since 1896 and discerned in them patterns that provoked further study. Secretary Wallace encouraged this initial spark.(5) Bean practiced what he termed the "art" of political analysis and forecasting, insisting that it was indeed an art and not a science. He began with the quantitative record, that is, the historical patterns discerned in state-by-state electoral statistics. He then adapted that statistical historical base to the peculiarities of each election and to public opinion as revealed by scientific polling. …