Douglas L. Bailey, a pioneering political consultant who had a key role in crafting Gerald R. Ford’s message in the 1976 presidential campaign and who later helped launch the first electronically distributed digest of national political news, died June 10 at his home in Arlington. He was 79.
Initial reports said Mr. Bailey died Sunday, but his daughter, Kate Bailey, said he died early Monday in his sleep. The cause of death was not immediately known, but colleagues said Mr. Bailey had been treated last year for lymphoma.
Throughout his long career, Mr. Bailey often seemed to be at the forefront of political and technological trends. In 1967, he and John Deardourff formed one of Washington’s first major political consulting firms, Bailey, Deardourff & Associates, to champion moderate Republican candidates throughout the country.
They devised an advertising campaign that almost got Ford elected, despite trailing Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter by 33 points in August. Ford lost the popular vote, 50 to 48 percent, in what Washington Post political reporter Lou Cannon called “the most remarkable comeback in the history of American presidential politics.”
Gerald Rafshoon, who was Carter’s communications director, said Tuesday that Mr. Bailey had “one of the best political minds I have ever known.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Bailey helped guide many Republicans to victory in senatorial and gubernatorial elections, but he became disgusted with the growing partisanship and influence of money in politics. In 1987, he turned to journalism as one of the founders of what was originally the Presidential Campaign Hotline, later shortened to just the Hotline, a daily digest of political news from throughout the nation.
“The Hotline was the first political Web site,” the current editor, Reid Wilson, said Tuesday. “It was the first place that aggregated political news from outside the Beltway.”
Long before the Politico Web site or 24-hour cable news channels, the Hotline helped build an appetite for constant political news.
The Hotline was first distributed by fax before going online. Even with subscription rates of more than $4,000 a year, it became essential reading for journalists, campaign workers and political junkies of every stripe.
“The Hotline changed the way journalists covered campaigns,” said Les Francis, a Democratic political strategist. “If you were on the campaign trail, the first question each day was, ‘Have you read the Hotline?’ ”
Mr. Bailey started the Hotline with a onetime Democratic political consultant, Roger Craver, to ensure that it would avoid a partisan slant. He hired eager young journalists who were willing to rise at 4 a.m. to clip newspapers.
“When it started in ’87,” “the only other entities online had to do with Wall Street and pornography,” Chuck Todd, who worked for the Hotline from 1992 to 2007 and is now chief White House correspondent for NBC News, recalled in an interview. “I remember when we put the Hotline on the Web in 1994, I think we had 10 people.”
It became a training ground for many top political journalists, including Todd; Norah O’Donnell, now the host of “CBS This Morning”; Craig Crawford of Congressional Quarterly; Stephen F. Hayes of the Weekly Standard; and Ken Rudin of NPR.
Mr. Bailey was “sort of a guru,” Todd said. “It was his personality, his wisdom that drove the Hotline.”
Douglas Lansford Bailey was born Oct. 5, 1933, in Cleveland. He was a 1954 graduate of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. He received a master’s degree and, in 1962, a doctorate in international law and diplomacy, both from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of international affairs in Medford, Mass.
In the early 1960s, he was a teaching assistant to Henry A. Kissinger at Harvard University. After working on Nelson A. Rockefeller’s failed bid for the 1964 presidential nomination, Mr. Bailey came to Washington and worked for Republican congressional groups.
After he and Deardourff founded their consulting firm, they engineered winning campaigns for many Republican senators, including Edward W. Brooke III of Massachusetts, Charles H. Percy of Illinois, John C. Danforth of Missouri, Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee and John H. Chafee of Rhode Island.
Mr. Bailey and Deardourff turned down an offer to work on Richard M. Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968.
“If we can’t vote for him,” Mr. Bailey once said, “we don’t want to work for him.”
During the 1976 presidential race, Mr. Bailey and Deardourff sought to distance Ford from Nixon and the Watergate scandal as they developed an ad campaign around the slogan, “I’m Feeling Good About America.”
“When campaigns became so negative and the process became so dominated by money, in the mid- to late ’80s,” Mr. Bailey said in 2004, when Deardourff died, “that was the time both of us became less comfortable.”
In later years, Mr. Bailey led efforts to educate young people about politics and civic responsibility. He hoped to build a third party and, with Rafshoon, Carter’s onetime adviser, launched reform efforts that would foster bipartisanship.
“Doug had become so troubled by the extreme rightward shift of the Republican Party,” Francis, the Democratic strategist said Tuesday, “that he voted in 2008 and 2012 for Barack Obama.”
Mr. Bailey’s survivors include his wife since 1965, Patricia Price Bailey, of Santa Fe, N.M.; two children, Edward Bailey of Washington and Kate Bailey of Marblehead, Mass.; a brother; and a grandson.
As recently as last week, when Mr. Bailey had lunch with Rafshoon, he was talking about launching new businesses and finding ways to bring decency and civility back to the practice of politics.
“You can’t find anyone who worked against him who can say he didn’t operate by a code of conduct,” Todd said. “He went through life with an honor code.”