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Pat Caddell’s Second Act

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Pat Caddell’s Second Act

The noted Democratic pollster applied the lessons of 1972 to Trump’s historic victory. February 20, 2019
Politics and law

Sometimes described as “the oracle of American politics,” pollster Patrick Caddell was born in the small town of Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 1950, the son of a Coast Guard officer, and died of a stroke not far away, in Charleston, South Carolina, last week at 68.

In the early 1970s, while still a Harvard undergraduate, Caddell saw that large numbers of Americans had become alienated from politics as a result of the turmoil and upheavals of the 1960s, including political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and campus unrest. He came to public attention during the 1972 Democratic primary campaign, when he urged South Dakota senator George McGovern to move in a populist direction to fend off a challenge from Alabama governor George Wallace. Running as a hell-raising anti-elitist, Wallace threw a scare into mainstream Democrats until he was sidelined by a would-be assassin’s bullet.  

McGovern lost in the biggest electoral landslide to that point in American history, but as political journalist Eleanor Clift observed, Caddell saw that “the way he amassed the delegates necessary for the nomination could provide a road map for Jimmy Carter in 1976—and it worked.” Carter campaign manager Hamilton Jordan proudly declared: “You know why Jimmy Carter is going to be president? Because of Pat Caddell—it’s all because of Pat Caddell.”

The sometimes-splenetic Caddell would work for the failed Democratic presidential campaigns of Gary Hart in 1984, Joe Biden in 1988, and Jerry Brown in 1992. But through it all, he was drifting away from the Democratic Party leadership, which he saw as increasingly disconnected from the American people. Caddell, who still saw himself as the critic of a self-serving elite, believed that the inner circle of American liberalism cared only about preserving its own status. In 1992, Caddell told the Los Angeles Times:

For the last 25 years, the politicians in this country have presided over a decline, and it is impossible for them to acknowledge it. Because to change, to turn the country toward what has to be done, they would first have to tell the truth. And to do that would be to risk their own power, because, in a democracy, that means standing up and saying, “We have failed.” And the track record of people who do that is not very good. So the Democratic Party lives a lie, the Washington Establishment lives a lie: “Nothing’s really wrong.”

Caddell played a small role in Howard Dean’s histrionic run for the 2004 Democratic nomination. An angry Caddell was adrift politically until 2012, when he connected with fellow populist-nationalist Steve Bannon. Bannon was interested in the polling Caddell did for a hypothetical candidate “Smith,” who, like the hero of the Frank Capra movie, wants to break away from conventional politics organized on behalf of the donor classes. Caddell’s polling numbers suggested that the Obama administration no longer enjoyed the consent of the governed. Neither conventionally conservative nor liberal, “Smith” represented a politics of American common sense. Caddell’s data suggested that traditional politicians were “ignoring the volcano rumbling beneath them.”

Jim Pinkerton at Breitbart News explained the irascible Caddell’s seeming drift to the Right:

In the 1990s, he was openly critical of the Clinton administration, and in the 2000s, he appeared as a regular on Fox News. He was also well known to Breitbart News readers, having written many articles for this site, as well as appearing many times on Breitbart News’ SiriusXM radio shows. Yet in his mind, Pat was always the same man. Till the day he died, he revered Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was well familiar with Ronald Reagan’s quip, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.”

Or as Caddell described himself, “I’m not really a conservative; I’m a populist, I’m an American exceptionalist.”

In 2015, Caddell was wary of Donald Trump’s temperament. But, as he told the New Yorker regarding the unlikely candidate, “he (Trump) wasn’t the best Smith, but he was the ONLY Smith.” Bannon, who then ran Breitbart, consulted closely with Caddell, developing the strategic insights that Kellyanne Conway deployed on Trump’s behalf. Caddell’s insights and guidance made it possible for a vastly outspent and outmanned Trump campaign to pull off the great upset of 2016.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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