How Pat Caddell’s Political Life Took Him From Jimmy Carter to Donald Trump
The pollster who won Carter the White House and created Bulworth with Beatty ended his life a MAGA man.
I learned through the network of people who worked for Jimmy Carter that Pat Caddell, the pollster who helped elect him president, had passed away Sunday morning at age 68 in Charleston, South Carolina, not far from where he was born in Rock Hill. The family didn’t want to announce his death until President Carter had been notified.
I was a newly minted reporter for Newsweek covering Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign when I first encountered Caddell. He already had a reputation as an enfant terrible. He was brilliant, irascible and a media darling. While still finishing up his undergraduate work at Harvard, he had worked on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.
His role there had taken on a mythical quality, making it seem that this young man had the keys to the kingdom for any aspiring candidate. McGovern didn’t win the presidency, but the way he amassed the delegates necessary for the nomination became Carter’s road map. And the themes Carter struck: “I’ll never lie to you” and “a government as good as its people” had their roots in post-Watergate disillusionment and Caddell’s theory about alienated voters—a theory that would eventually lead him to supporting Donald Trump.
But I get ahead of myself. In 1976, he was any reporter’s dream source, plugged in, mostly fearless, and very smart. The night of the New Hampshire primary, I had been fighting a nasty cold which was rapidly turning into something more serious—pneumonia as it turned out. My assignment for Newsweek was to stick as close to the Carter team as possible, and my hacking cough gained me sympathy.
Caddell was tracking the numbers, and nobody seemed to mind that I was hanging around, picking up the color and quotes that a news magazine relies on. I specifically remember Caddell bringing me grapefruit juice, for which I was very grateful. It’s a memory that I treasure since in recent years, he wouldn’t return my phone calls over some real or imagined slight.
He was a mixed blessing for the administration during Carter’s four years in the White House. No one ever doubted his brilliance, but it didn’t always mesh with the reality as others saw it. In the summer of 1979, his poll numbers sinking, Carter retreated to Camp David for ten days to re-think his presidency. With Caddell advising him, Carter emerged to deliver what became known as the “malaise” speech. Carter never used the actual word, but Caddell did, and the rhetoric that Carter used about the public’s “crisis of confidence” echoed themes that Caddell had voiced since the McGovern campaign – and that he would continue to emphasize throughout his life.
In a retrospective on the McGovern campaign in Vanity Fair in November 2012, Caddell recalled his meeting with Gary Hart, then McGovern’s campaign manager, at the Miami airport. “We’re in the corridor waiting for different flights, and I’m telling him my theory about alienated voters, and how the people who’d voted for Wallace in the South in 1968 were the same people who voted for Bobby Kennedy in the North. I said that the war was a one-dimensional issue. There was a lot of sentiment against it, but also a lot of support for it, especially among blue-collar voters. My argument was that McGovern was a prairie populist and that, if he used populist issues, he could appeal to that alienated vote. Of course, at 21, I knew a lot, right? Anyway, Gary said, “You know, we need someone to do ‘sampling,’” which is what he called polling then. “Do you think you’d be interested in doing it for us?” I said, trying to be as nonplussed as possible, “Yeah, I think I would be.”
Maybe the malaise speech might have worked if Carter hadn’t followed it up by demanding the resignation of everybody in his Cabinet. But he did, and his presidency simply looked unhinged, and Caddell wasn’t able to bring it back from the brink. On Election night, 1980, Caddell was aboard Air Force One flying back from the coast when he had to tell Carter that his numbers had collapsed and that he was facing a landslide loss.
For a time after that, Caddell was adrift, and bitter about all things Washington. A profile in the Los Angeles Times in 1988 — after he’d moved there, to what he calls "the real world" and says he will "lead the revolution" from — describes him as a man without a candidate. Politics, he says, is “a cesspool which the consultants designed, and the press gets to be the pump." He vowed to "take a blowtorch and burn right through" his adversaries.
He became a close friend of actor and political activist Warren Beatty, and in 1998, they collaborated on the political satire, “Bulworth,” where a candidate sheds all conventionality and breaks out of the restraints of the two party system. The voters love it, and the plot foreshadows Caddell’s fascination with Trump, who he first met in the eighties.
“People said he was just a clown,” Caddell was quoted saying. “But I’ve learned that you should always pay attention to successful ‘clowns.’”
Last year, in November, Caddell spoke on a panel with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon at David Horowitz’s Restoration Weekend Conference in Florida. He cited a raft of numbers that explained Trump’s victory in 2016, according to an article on the Breitbart news site. Seventy-five percent of Americans believed the country was in decline; only 15 percent of U.S. citizens believe that if you work hard, you will succeed, while 85 percent of Americans think the rich and powerful rigged the system for their benefit.
“This is ultimately the truth,” Caddell said. “Political leaders are more interested in protecting their power and privilege than doing what is right for the American people, 81 percent of Americans agree.” He declared “Make America Great Again” the greatest slogan of his lifetime.
In recent years, much of the political world dismissed Caddell as off the rails, but the core of his critique of our politics has proven all too prescient. A Washington monthly 1987 profile said: “Caddell believes the key to winning contemporary elections is appealing to 'alienated' voters—that ever-growing group of mostly younger voters who are not easily identified as liberal or conservative and don't trust government, politicians, or the parties. You can't lure these voters with programs and stands on specific issues, so the theory goes. Rather, you must remain as uncommitted as they are. You lure them by attacking that which caused their alienation: the Establishment. Even if he were inclined to help his candidate address the nation's substantive problems and articulate a coherent package of solutions, he'd have trouble."It’s not about finding solutions, it’s about stoking fear and finding scapegoats. Caddell was on to it a long time ago.