Joseph Napolitan, Pioneering Campaign Consultant, Dies at 84
By PAUL VITELLO
December 9, 2013
Joseph Napolitan in 1990.
His clients included President John F. Kennedy and President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia.
Joseph Napolitan, a campaign consultant whose use of polling and media advertising heralded the rise of independent strategists like himself and the waning power of party organizations in the management of American political campaigns, died on Dec. 2 in Agawam, Mass. He was 84.
The cause was complications of prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter Martha Cownap said.
In his heyday, Mr. Napolitan oversaw simultaneously the ad campaigns of candidates in a half-dozen local, state and national contests, commissioning polls, hiring and firing advertising agencies, and advising candidates on how to increase their vote-getting appeal.
He worked for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960 and Lyndon B. Johnson’s in 1964, and helped Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey stage an 11th-hour comeback that almost put him in the White House in 1968.
Two upset victories helped Mr. Napolitan seal his reputation as a master of the long shot. In 1966, he helped the independently wealthy Milton J. Shapp win an insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination for governor of Pennsylvania against Robert P. Casey Sr., a state senator favored by the party establishment. (Mr. Shapp lost in the general election that year but won the governorship in 1970; Mr. Casey was elected governor in 1986.) In 1968, in a Democratic primary in Alaska, Mr. Napolitan helped Mike Gravel — a former state legislator and, 40 years later, a presidential candidate — unseat Ernest Gruening, a popular United States senator.
In both races, Mr. Napolitan’s use of weekly polls to fine-tune his candidates’ media messaging, almost unheard-of at the time, was considered decisive.
Mr. Napolitan’s innovation and independence from party hierarchy made him an exemplar of a new kind of politics in the late 1960s. The New York Times described him in a 1968 profile as “that newest American phenomenon, the professional campaign manager.”
He was among the first consultants to argue that voting is, more often than not, based on gut feelings. “Decide what you want the voter to feel or how you want him to react,” he advised candidates. “Then decide what you must do to make him react the way you want.”
The campaign consultant’s job, he wrote in his 1972 book “The Election Game and How to Win It,” which became a primer for candidates and campaign professionals, was to practice “the art of communicating a candidate’s message directly to the voter without filtering it through the party organization.”
In 1968, Mr. Napolitan was handling races in five states when, late in the campaign season, he was asked to take on a sixth job: to help rescue Mr. Humphrey’s sputtering presidential campaign. At the time, Mr. Humphrey, a Democrat, was trailing the Republican nominee, Richard M. Nixon, by 15 points.
Placed in charge of media strategy, Mr. Napolitan fired the campaign’s high-priced advertising agency, commissioned a raft of polls and a spate of new ads, and sent a camera crew out on the campaign trail with Mr. Humphrey to make a half-hour promotional film about him — another innovation Mr. Napolitan popularized that became a standard element of major campaigns.
Mr. Humphrey surged in the polls as Election Day neared and ultimately lost the popular vote by 0.7 percent. Mr. Nixon said that if the election had been held two days later, he would have lost.
“That broke my heart for three months,” Mr. Napolitan said.
Joseph John Napolitan was born in Springfield, Mass., on March 6, 1929, the son of Pasquale and Lucy Anzolotti Napolitan, immigrants who had arrived separately from the town of Bagolino in northern Italy. His father, a tavern owner, died when Joseph was 7, and his mother went to work at an airplane parts factory, relying on her siblings in Springfield to help raise Joseph and his sister, Peggy.
After graduating from American International College in Springfield, Mr. Napolitan worked as a newspaper reporter in that city for 10 years before turning to political consulting. His first client was an underdog candidate for mayor opposing a six-term incumbent. The underdog, Thomas O’Connor, won.
Two years later, Mr. Napolitan helped another candidate unseat Mr. O’Connor.
His political dexterity attracted the attention of Lawrence F. O’Brien Jr., a fellow Springfield native who was managing the 1960 Kennedy campaign. Mr. O’Brien, who would later become chairman of the Democratic National Committee and commissioner of the National Basketball Association, made Mr. Napolitan a kind of right-hand man without a portfolio.
Mr. O’Brien told him to come up with a title. He settled on “political consultant,” a term that was not in wide circulation then.
Besides his daughter Martha, Mr. Napolitan is survived by another daughter, Christina Napolitan; a son, Luke; and five grandchildren. His wife, Mary, and another son, Jay, died before him.
Mr. Napolitan and his firm, Joseph Napolitan Associates, went on to advise candidates abroad. With his help, President Ferdinand E. Marcos won re-election in the Philippines in 1969, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing won the French presidency in 1974, and Óscar Arias became president of Costa Rica in 1986.
“He regretted Marcos,” his daughter Martha said. “He never said that publicly, but I know he did. He said he didn’t know he would become a dictator.”
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