“I set up at the courthouse and called all the elections early with great abandon, with no idea what I was doing,” he said. “And they all turned out right.”
That was the extent of his formal academic training in public opinion research.
He was still an undergraduate at Harvard, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1972 and started a thesis on “the changing South,” when he started polling professionally for Senator George S. McGovern’s fledgling presidential primary operation.
McGovern lost in a landslide; Mr. Caddell’s political acumen and polling expertise, translating data into tactical strategy, were among the few creditable outcomes of the campaign.
He established his own firm, Cambridge Survey Research, to conduct political campaigns. Although he spun off another company, Cambridge Reports, to advise corporate clients, he was criticized for capitalizing on his Washington connections — representing, among other clients, nuclear energy companies and the Saudi Arabian government — especially when, during the Carter administration, he became known as the president’s pollster.
Campaign staffs are not known for sharing credit, but in June 1976, when Mr. Carter had secured the Democratic nomination, his campaign manager, Hamilton Jordan, confidently told a reporter: “You know why Jimmy Carter is going to be president? Because of Pat Caddell — it’s all because of Pat Caddell.”
Mr. Jordan said that in helping Mr. Carter defeat Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama in the Florida primary, Mr. Caddell had reaffirmed the campaign’s overall strategy but had also pinpointed where to concentrate its resources.
Before Mr. Carter was inaugurated in January 1977, Mr. Caddell advised him to stick to broad themes and issued a warning: “Too many good people,” he wrote in a 56-page memo, “have been beaten because they tried to substitute substance for style.”