Pat Caddell, 27, Is the Whiz Kid Pollster Who Plays Good News-Bad News with the President

Having a client in the White House, Pat Caddell discovered last January, was not everything he dreamed it would be. “For one thing, I found the Oval Office was much smaller than I’d imagined,” he says. “And then I was afraid someone would come along and say, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ I kept waiting for the grownups to come in and throw me out.”

Except for his age (27), Caddell has little reason to think he’s out of his league. As official pollster since the Jimmy-Who days, he helped chart the course and refine the themes of the Carter candidacy. Then, in a lengthy pre-Inaugural memo, he shrewdly prescribed both the style and substance of the first 100 days. So close is the Carter-Caddell working relationship that the President has sometimes been accused of using Caddell’s polls, rather than his own convictions, as the basis for White House initiatives. Whatever the merits of that criticism, Caddell is clearly among the most trusted members of the Carter brain trust and—despite his age and status—appealingly unspoiled. “But for 10,000 votes in a few of the right states,” Caddell observes, “no one would want to talk to any of us.”

No doubt he protests too much. His roster of political clients climbed into the dozens even before Carter’s victory, and more than a score of corporations pay $20,000 a year for his company’s quarterly surveys of national attitudes. With business now into the seven-figure range, Caddell’s payoff includes a new Cambridge HQ (with a staff of 30), a plush branch office in Washington, an apartment on Boston’s chic Beacon Hill, a rented home with pool in Georgetown (which he shares with Carter’s media adviser Gerald Rafshoon) and a gold Mercedes for forays about town. “I’ve been lucky,” he admits. “I’m at my peak. One thing after another has fallen into place. But I’ve paid a price for it. When I was younger I gave up a lot of activities, especially in terms of my peer group. I haven’t traveled. I don’t own much. And it’s been a while—since at least before the last campaign—that I’ve had a relationship with a woman for any period of time.”

The son of a Coast Guard officer, Caddell began polling before he reached his teens. Sampling his Charleston, S.C. fifth-grade classmates, he predicted correctly that Richard Nixon would carry the city in 1960. Later, as a Harvard undergraduate, he studied history and government while simultaneously launching his career. In 1970 he helped produce 2,000 pages of opinion research for gubernatorial candidate John Gilligan of Ohio (Caddell’s hourly rate then: 18 cents), and the following year he and two classmates founded Cambridge Survey Research Inc. Their first client was presidential candidate George McGovern, whom they projected early to be the Democratic nominee. (It was favorite campaign lore that Caddell, in the midst of the crucial California primary, had to fly back to Cambridge and take a swimming test in order to qualify for graduation from Harvard.)

First encountering Carter on a swing through the South with McGovern in 1972, Caddell returned for a visit in 1973. After two years of sporadic communication, he agreed to help Carter demolish George Wallace in the 1976 Florida primary. The rest is history—or at least current events. A self-driven victim of overwork, Caddell keeps his watch set 15 minutes fast and is still chronically late—even, occasionally, for his weekly appointments at the White House. (Except on special occasions, he confers with aides Hamilton Jordan or Jody Powell and communicates with Carter by memo. “If I need to see him, all I got to do is ask.”)

Often Caddell is the bearer of bad news—as recently when he helped persuade the President that “confusion over the number of Administration programs” was sapping Carter’s strength in the polls. “The President has taken on some unpopular issues,” Caddell says, “such as energy, Panama and welfare reform. It’s my job to argue the political consequences, but I know his first consideration is what is the right thing to do, and I admire that.” Caddell’s main concern now: “The President tries to do too much. He’s up every morning at 5:30 and works straight through. I think that’s very tedious. I can’t imagine any human being that works as hard as he does.”

Coming from a gregarious night owl whose tastes range “from beer to cognac and everything in between,” his view may be biased. Although he can remember taking only one vacation in his adult life (after the 1976 election), Caddell claims to be resolutely indifferent to the Washington power trip. “I don’t think I’m jaded,” he says. “I think it’s just growing up. Three or four years ago I would have thought Washington was the only thing in the world for me—one big roller coaster. I think less of that now. After McGovern lost I discovered how little people remembered. Fame and success can’t be your life, because they come and go.”

More and more, Caddell finds himself thinking about the future the way a college freshman often does—where will he be five years from now? “There are so many things I want to do—write about my experiences, go to Europe, Russia, China,” he says. “It happens in life—you get bored and then it becomes routine, which is deadly in this business.”

Lately, to spice his life with variety, Caddell has been offering his skills to Hollywood as a market researcher—most recently for Francis Ford Coppola’s long-awaited Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now. Perhaps Hollywood glamor will someday replace political glamor, but when pressed for his notion of the ideal future for Pat Caddell, the neglected boy in him comes forth. “I’d give it all up,” he says with obvious relish, “to play center field for the Red Sox.”

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