Richard B. Wirthlin dies at 80; pollster and strategist helped steer Reagan's political career

Richard B. Wirthlin dies at 80; pollster and strategist helped steer Reagan's political career
Richard B. Wirthlin addresses a presidential primary task force in Utah in 1998. He was respected by colleagues in both major parties. (Allen Weed / Associated Press)

Richard B. Wirthlin, a pollster and strategist whose research, particularly on voters' personal values, helped steer Ronald Reagan's political career from his early years as California governor through his two terms in the White House, has died. He turned 80 a day before his death from natural causes Wednesday at his home in Salt Lake City, his family said.

A former economics professor, Wirthlin became what the Washington Post called the "prince of polling" after helping Reagan win the presidency in 1980. After the election, he met regularly with Reagan in the White House, conducting research that helped guide the popular president on such critical issues as taxes, defense and American support for the Nicaraguan contras.

"I am deeply saddened by the death of Richard Wirthlin," former First Lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement Thursday. "Dick was part of my husband's political team from the very beginning, and what began as a working relationship went on to become a lifelong friendship. He was smart, thoughtful and understood Ronnie as well as anyone."

Wirthlin built a polling and research firm that was a training ground for a number of leading pollsters and was respected by colleagues in both major parties.

"It was a delight to work with him and excruciating to work against him," said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. "He was an unbelievably talented professional who got more from data than anybody in our generation of pollsters. He was tremendously innovative in … the way in which he put data together and analyzed it."

Wirthlin was particularly noted for applying to the political arena research techniques that corporations used to shape or improve their images.

"We all understand the role of issues in politics, such as abortion, guns and gay marriage. But Richard Wirthlin really elevated the importance of identifying critical values which might be different for Democrats and Republicans and communicating those values in the course of political speeches," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who heads the American Assn. of Political Consultants. "When President Reagan talked about the importance of work, family and faith, a lot of that was rooted in Richard Wirthlin's research."

Wirthlin formed his own polling and research firm, Decision Making Information, in 1969. Later named the Wirthlin Group and Wirthlin Worldwide, it conducted research not only for political figures but also for many Fortune 100 companies. In one of Wirthlin's most successful campaigns, he helped the American Plastics Council combat negative publicity in the 1990s about the effect of plastics on the environment.

The son of a Mormon bishop, Wirthlin was born in Salt Lake City on March 15, 1931. After completing his mission in Switzerland and serving in the Army at Utah's Dugway Proving Ground, he married Jeralie Mae Chandler in 1956. She survives him along with seven children, 27 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Trained in economics and statistics at the University of Utah, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees, and UC Berkeley, where he received his doctorate, he began his academic career teaching economics at the UC San Francisco medical school. In 1964, he joined the faculty at Brigham Young University in Utah and became chair of the economics department. He conducted polling work on the side, which drew the attention of political operatives in California.

In 1968, associates arranged a meeting for him with a prospective client but would not disclose the client's identity. Wirthlin, who had been a supporter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, was not a fan of then-Gov. Reagan, who was considering a presidential run. "I believed the comments made about Gov. Reagan, that he was insensitive, that he was uncaring, that he was easily programmed, was not a strong leader, needed a script for everything he did," Wirthlin recalled in a 1984 Washington Post interview.

After sitting down with Reagan for two hours at the latter's home in Pacific Palisades, Wirthlin changed his opinion and began a professional association that would span two decades.

He had critics who accused him of sometimes presenting too rosy a picture to the president. He once miscalled an election for another client, Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Marshall Coleman, who lost the 1980 race to Charles Robb after being assured of victory by Wirthlin's polls.

Wirthlin, like Reagan, had an optimistic nature, which perhaps contributed to the rapport he had with his most important client. He had direct access to Reagan in monthly meetings at the White House.

"I think Dick was very important to Reagan," Reagan biographer Lou Cannon said Thursday. "Dick did a lot of things besides just giving numbers. He really went into why people were thinking of doing something."

During the 1980 presidential campaign, for instance, Wirthlin decided to conduct research on voters' attitudes toward Reagan's age. (Reagan would turn 70 after taking office.) "Wirthlin must have done half a dozen or more permutations on it. He found age was not an issue except among those 65 or older," Cannon said. "They decided not to hide his age but celebrate it. They had all these birthday parties all over the place. It got to be quite funny."