Remembering Pat Caddell: Independently Brilliant
The following piece was co-written by Independent Voting President Jacqueline Salit and Independent Voter Project Attorney Chad Peace, in remembrance of the late Patrick Cadell. Caddell was a broadly-respected political pollster and pundit. He served as a consultant for President Jimmy Carter and other presidential candidates, including drafting a strategy memo for independent Ross Perot in 1992, and appeared regularly as an on-air commentator for Fox News. Caddell passed away on February 16 after suffering a stroke.
I was sad to read the news of Pat Caddell’s death. I’d met him only once, two years ago in Kansas City at an event organized by Chad Peace of 80 reform and independent activists gathered to form the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers.
I knew of Caddell by reputation. The inside-the-beltway consensus was that he was brilliant but unhinged. In 1972, he was a volunteer on George McGovern’s anti-Vietnam War presidential campaign, and by 1976 was advising Jimmy Carter.
I recalled that he helped Jerry Brown create a left-wing, anti-corruption presidential bid in the 1992 Democratic primaries while also preparing a strategy memo for Ross Perot’s first independent run that same year. He left political life for a while and moved to the West Coast, where he consulted with Aaron Sorkin in writing The West Wing. And, I knew he was one of only a handful of pollsters/analysts to see the 2016 arc bending toward Donald Trump.
While most pundits regarded Caddell’s unorthodox path as either mercenary or the classic story of a left-winger moving right in old age, I saw it differently. He was searching for something. As he would later put it, he was searching for the “politics of otherness.”
Pat circulated a report at the April 2017 Kansas City gathering in which he contended that 87% of voters believed that “politicians of both parties fight to protect their own power and privilege” rather than acting on behalf of the American people. He created a generic Candidate Smith who stood for a reordering of political priorities and an anti-elitist redistribution of political power, and his polling showed that Smith would have beaten Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in a three-way race by decisive margins.
This was intriguing to me and it mirrored much of what independent voters had been telling us since the break-up of the Reform Party in 2000.
I’d been warned by friends and colleagues that Caddell was bad-tempered, ran on a short fuse, and could be abusive. But that was not the man I met in Kansas City. The man sitting at a front row table across from me seemed vulnerable and unwell. As the day’s discussions unfolded, I felt that Pat was in deep distress about the state of our country and the corruption of those in charge.
Yes, he was brilliant. Yes, he was willing to pursue things to which others in his profession turned a blind eye. Yes, he had the courage to ask unorthodox questions that allowed America’s deep political alienation to rise to the surface.But in my brief encounter with Caddell, I saw he was in anguish over these circumstances.
It was personal for Pat.
Caddell held both major parties in contempt. John Fund, the National Review’s national affairs editor, observed in his obituary that “Caddell wasn’t a fan of Donald Trump. He was a fan of giving the sclerotic U.S. political system a kick in the rear.”
Caddell told Breitbart News in 2018 that the Republican Party simply “rolled over for its donors.” But he seemed to harbor a particular bitterness for the Democratic Party, where he had cut his political teeth, now describing the party as “hollowed out” and unable “to reach out beyond identity politics.”
In the setting of the Kansas City meeting, where everyone was a reformer or an independent or both, Caddell projected his sense of urgency without rancor. Other than an outburst about the No Labels approach to Capitol Hill compromise (he felt No Labels was providing cover for the corruption of the party system), he was circumspect and available.
When I shared some of my own experiences in building a left/center/right coalition in the architecting of the Reform Party and I fingered the bipartisan takeover attempts as a cause of Reform’s demise, Caddell immediately echoed my account. For him, it seemed, the Perot years were the harbinger, the early warning signs of a more momentous political disalignment and disruption to come.
He sought me out after the panel and shook my hand. We spoke briefly about the Perot days, about how much the movement was maligned and misunderstood, both by the left and the right. He appreciated what our movement was doing. He was almost gentle, even trusting. And tired. He seemed very tired.
I reached out to Chad to touch base about Pat’s death and about how he had tried to add some of his special knowledge to the new reform movement. Naturally, the liberal media tended to emphasize his ties to Steve Bannon, always looking to paint anything and anyone violating its norms as reactionary. We decided to write up some of our views of Pat.
Some news organizations described Caddell as a man without a party. True that. And in this way, he was a lot like his fellow Americans.
- Jacqueline Salit, President of Independent Voting
I’m too young to know Pat in full form. But I’m old enough, and worked in politics without a party long enough, to understand why Pat was tired.
Saying what people want to hear is easy. In 2016, there was a massive industry of consultants, pollsters, “journalists,” political-ladder climbers, party insiders, and transactional funders that wanted to believe that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. Fewer political tradesmen had their career hanging on the line for Donald Trump. So it was safe to “be with Her.”
Not long after first meeting with Pat, I coincidentally attended a political seminar hosted in San Diego by a respected political club. The guest speaker was a political scientist from the University of California at San Diego, who was asked to give a data-driven analysis of voter sentiment for the presidential election. I will spare you the details, but this is an adequate summarization: Third party voters are naïve, Trump supporters are bigots, and sophisticated voters will vote for Clinton.
Reflexively, I channeled my newfound “Pat Caddell” confronting the professor’s “analysis” which was obviously no more than a projection of his bias into a safe crowd. I asked the professor why his data-driven analysis led him to generalize third-party voters as naïve, and he sputtered out a non-answer. I was proud of the few laughs I got from, perhaps, the other third-party voters in the crowd.
I thought of Pat and the professor again on election night. I knew that Pat would be shaking his head in frustrated affirmation while the professor would be shaking in disbelief.
My point is this: Pat Caddell was one of the rare political insiders that never pandered to a crowd, or to himself. From volunteering for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972 to predicting a Trump victory in 2016, Pat Caddell never sought comfort in the herd.
I can imagine why Pat was tired.
When one side of the American political class says the other side is evil, and the other side says the same, Pat is one of the few who saw a better side of America.
Rest in Peace, Pat.
- S. Chad Peace, Attorney for the Independent Voter Project