The ukulele-playing data-loving pollster who taught Washington how to woo women


Dotty Lynch in Washington in 1983. Lynch, one of the first female pollsters to advise presidential campaigns, particularly on the concerns and political attitudes of women, died Aug. 10 at 69. (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)
August 14, 2014

Cokie Roberts and Lesley Stahl remember that 1985 ladies’ lunch as if it were yesterday.

Dotty Lynch, a pollster whose gender-gap research in the 1970s and ’80s broke ground on wooing women to vote, arrived late and ashen-faced. She said almost nothing at the monthly yak fest as her girlfriends — Roberts, Linda Wertheimer and Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio; Patricia O’Brien of Knight Ridder newspapers; and Stahl of CBS News — discussed clothes and kids and husbands and nail polish.

Finally, Lynch — a Democratic National Committee pollster who had worked on the failed 1984 White House runs of Sens. Gary Hart (Colo.) and Walter Mondale (Minn.) — shared some news.

“I just got fired,” she told the group. The DNC had cut her position.

“We all decided we would get her a job,” Stahl said. “And each of us went back to our offices and got on the phone, and by the end of the day, she had a job at CBS.”

Lynch, who died Sunday of melanoma at age 69, spent the next 20 years as the network’s senior political editor, shaping its political coverage based on extensive surveys and prodigious analysis.

“It was the first time that we felt like the old girls’ network could be doing what the old boys’ network had been doing forever, and who better to find a job for than Dotty?” Roberts said.

In the upstairs reception rooms of Joseph Gawler’s Sons funeral home in Northwest Washington, dozens of friends, family members, colleagues and students gathered Wednesday to celebrate her life and swap Dotty stories.

She played the ukulele. She adored tacky Christmas sweaters. She was funny. She was also a deeply religious Catholic. When asked once to name her favorite book, she replied “Matthew,” as in “The Gospel According to.”

“She loved data. She loved political intel and she loved gossip, but not necessarily in that order,” said R. Morgan Downey, an obesity health policy consultant whom she married in 2003, more than three decades after they met on George McGovern’s presidential campaign.

“It wasn’t that she couldn’t keep a secret, but that she could share it with the right people at the right time,” he said. “We might be at a dinner party and a question arose about this senator or political figure. She knew the answer but wasn’t going to say it at that forum. She would say it just to people who needed to know. She was not a kiss-and-tell person. With friends and people who were in politics, she would always put things in the right context.”

Ask Bob Schieffer, the host of “Face the Nation,” how many times Lynch and her political team saved his bacon, and he replies, “Every single day.”

Jane Hartley, President Obama’s choice for ambassador to France, said of Lynch: “From the moment I met her, I knew we would be best friends for the rest of our lives. We both adored politics, we were both Irish, we were workaholics,” meaning they often ate very late. Hartley still laughs about a night in the 1970s that Lynch got her car stuck on a median on Connecticut Avenue. “She wasn’t such a great driver.”

But she was, by all accounts, a natural mentor and professor, teaching political communication and research at American University from 2006 until May.

“Dotty always wanted to give us real-life experience. She brought in experts. She wanted us to see what it was like to be journalists,” said Miriam Diemer, 31, a former student who is now a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics. A key lesson from Lynch: “The best thing Dotty taught us was to be generous.”

That giving spirit extended to her late-in-life husband and his only child, Robert, 28, who was a teenager when Lynch entered his life and is now an aspiring writer. He recalled the “huge thrill” of meeting President Bill Clinton at a White House media picnic she took him to when he was 13 or 14.

“In the past five to eight years, she started referring to me as ‘our son.’ She was extremely generous, no matter who you were, with her time, with her ideas, with her students, with her friends, with my friends.”

Morgan Downey said their initial romance failed because “we were both very career-oriented. She was doing a lot of campaigns and traveling. It didn’t seem like she was ready to settle down. We were almost too alike. I am Catholic, New York raised. Maybe it was too inbred.”

And this time, after his divorce? “Chemistry. We had our own life experiences, and we had all of that Irish Catholic New York stuff in common. We had gone our separate ways. We had lived, but we were comfortable in our careers. And I felt like having a little too much in common was a positive. This is someone who speaks the same language.”

Their wedding in 2003, covered in detail by the New York Times, included a classic Lynch one-liner: “I moved from dating campaign operatives to reporters as my career changed, although it seemed that during the Gary Hart campaign, the candidate was getting more action than I.”

The only snark at Wednesday’s love fest was aimed at the absent Patrick Caddell, for whom Lynch apprenticed in the 1970s and ’80s. The wunderkind Harvard pollster for the Hart and Mondale campaigns rebuffed her prescient efforts to target women.

“Dotty could quantify the gender gap and think of ways for political leaders to take advantage of it, and even for men to deal with it,” said Tom Oliphant, a former Boston Globe political reporter and columnist. “I don’t think for one minute that Caddell thought about any of that.”

“What made Dotty different is that she never used a stiletto — the knife, not the shoe — in her life,” Oliphant said. “That’s rare in this game.”

Annie Groer is a Washington journalist.

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com writer and columnist specializing in politics, culture and design. She has also written for the New York Times, Town & Country, Washingtonian and More, and is at work on a memoir. Follow her @AnnieGroer.
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