Dotty Lynch, political pollster who later worked for CBS News, dies at 69


Dotty Lynch in 1983. (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)

Dotty Lynch, who became a leading authority on the concerns and political attitudes of American women, first as one of the earliest female pollsters to advise presidential campaigns and later with CBS News as an analyst of polls and current-affairs trends, died Aug. 10 at a hospital in Washington. She was 69.

The cause was complications from melanoma, said her husband, R. Morgan Downey.

During a career spanning four decades, Ms. Lynch collected, parsed and interpreted voter polling and survey data. She became best known, during her work in the 1970s and early 1980s for the Democratic Party, for illuminating the opinions of female voters.

Contrary to the long-held assumptions of some older-school political operatives, women did not simply vote the same way as their husbands.

“She’s the person who raised the consciousness of the party leaders on the voter gap between men and women,” Democratic political consultant Bob Squier told The Washington Post in 1983. “She translated it and made people aware of it.”

After joining CBS as political editor in 1985, Ms. Lynch covered presidential campaigns, national political conventions, midterm elections, and presidential and vice presidential debates. She managed an in-house team of researchers who provided polling and analysis to anchors and correspondents such as Mike Wallace, Bob Schieffer, Diane Sawyer and Lesley Stahl.

“She proposed stories for Dan Rather and any other reporters who wanted to cover politics,” Stahl said by e-mail. “She knew everyone. If I, for instance, was working on a story, I would ask her who I should call for background or for on-camera interviews. We all knew she had the keys to the kingdom: She had the contacts, knew what all the polls were saying and how to interpret them. She helped shaped our pieces and made sure we were accurate.”

Ms. Lynch was enthralled by politics from a young age. When she was growing up in Brooklyn, her closest childhood friend was the daughter of Hugh Carey, the liberal Democrat and future New York governor who won the first of seven terms in Congress in 1960.

To help Carey and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy that year, Ms. Lynch recalled, she dressed in red, white and blue and belted campaign songs from the back seat of a Cadillac that roamed the congressional district.

After receiving a master’s degree in sociology in 1968, Ms. Lynch began her professional life as a researcher for the NBC News election unit — one of the few jobs available at the time to women with an interest in politics and journalism. She and Stahl, a future “60 Minutes” correspondent, were among the staff members assigned to write comprehensive candidate summaries used by on-camera reporters.

In 1972, she befriended future U.S. senator Gary Hart, then serving as campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate George S. McGovern. Hart introduced Ms. Lynch to Patrick H. Caddell, a Harvard senior who was a sought-after political adviser to Democrats, and who became an influential campaign operative within the party.

Ms. Lynch spent much of the 1970s apprenticing as a pollster under Caddell, whose clients included McGovern and Jimmy Carter when he sought the presidency in 1976. Ms. Lynch left Caddell to advise Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s ill-fated 1980 presidential challenge.

After a brief stint as the Democratic National Committee’s director of survey research, Ms. Lynch led her own polling and analysis business from 1983 to 1985. Her specialty was explaining the “gender gap” — a perceived division between male and female views on political issues and candidates — and its potential impact on voting patterns.

Ms. Lynch advised Kennedy (D-Mass.) and other prominent Catholic legislators on how to discuss abortion as a political issue. To appeal to women voters, she said, candidates should think “in more real-life terms than in specific legislative terms,” demonstrate “compassion for the poor and elderly” and play up a “consensus style” of leadership.

She achieved her most visible campaign role as a polling adviser for Sen. Hart during the Colorado Democrat’s high-profile but short-lived White House bid in 1984. (Three years later, Hart would drop out of a second White House run after revelations of his extramarital affair with model Donna Rice.)

In Hart’s first campaign, Ms. Lynch crafted a strategy to place the senator in commercials with women and encouraged him to accent in his speeches the economic and political power of women.

“We wanted to make it clear that women are not expected to conform to the economic system but that the economic system should conform to women,” she told the New York Times.

Despite an early grassroots surge for Hart, he was outmatched by the organizational depth of the establishment candidate, former vice president Walter F. Mondale, whose team Ms. Lynch ultimately joined.

One of her assignments was to conduct polling about the appeal of a woman on the ticket. Ultimately, Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York was named Mondale’s running mate, becoming the first woman on a major-party presidential ticket.

“We were given the mandate to get the women’s vote,” Ms. Lynch told the Times after Mondale’s crushing loss to the incumbent, President Ronald Reagan. “But we were not given the resources with which to achieve that.”

She added that the Mondale campaign “blew a real good opportunity” by not harnessing the “sense of empowerment this would bring to women.” Other political leaders were bluntly critical of Mondale’s inner circle of advisers, saying they did not make effective use of Ferraro and instead cast her in a traditional running mate role — “part hatchet man, part echo chamber,” the Times wrote.

After leaving CBS in 2005, Ms. Lynch became an executive in residence at American University’s School of Communication and co-director of the master’s level program in political communication.

Dorothea Jean Lynch, whose father was active in the New York pressman’s union, was born in Brooklyn on July 24, 1945. She was a 1966 graduate of Marymount Manhattan College and received her master’s degree from New York’s Fordham University.

In addition to her husband, survivors include a stepson, Robert Downey, both of Washington.

Ms. Lynch’s marriage in 2003 to Downey, whom she had first met during the McGovern campaign, was featured prominently in the Times wedding section.

After announcing her marriage plans, Ms. Lynch said she received a call from then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Having spent her career consumed by politics, Ms. Lynch figured the call was about Robert G. Torricelli’s withdrawl from his U.S. Senate reelection bid amid an ethics scandal. Instead, Ms. Lynch said, “she wanted to hear all about the engagement.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) resigned from the Senate. He withdrew from his reelection bid in 2002 but completed his term.

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”

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