Pollster Extraordinaire Dick Wirthlin: Never Outranked

Perhaps the most memorable of stories about Richard Wirthlin came out of his most important project in his four decades as a pollster and political consultant: the polling for Ronald Reagan’s successful bid for the presidency in 1980.

In the days following Reagan’s strong performance in his lone televised debate with Jimmy Carter on Oct. 28 of that year, most polls that had shown the race seesawing between the former California governor and the Democratic President had tipped to Republican Reagan.  Close aides to Reagan such as Lyn Nofziger felt confident they would emerge on top.  Reagan himself said he was “cautiously optimistic.”

But Dick Wirthlin was more than cautious in his optimism.  His private polling for the Reagan campaign detected a major shift to the Republican that was swelling enormously.  Not only would his candidate win, he told the Reagan inner circle and several friends, but it would be a landslide and the Senate was likely to go Republican for the first time in 26 years.

As we all know, that’s what happened.  Wirthlin was spot-on, having forecast something that few others could see coming.  Overnight, it established him as a pollster par excellence and one who would be consulted by other conservative candidates for the rest of his life.

Last week, that life ended when Wirthlin died at age 80.  Those who worked with him and even those who had just heard him speak recalled the insight and decency of the economist and onetime Mormon missionary who not only helped make Ronald Reagan become President but advised him throughout his presidency.

A graduate of the University of Utah and UC Berkeley (where he received his doctorate), the man the Washington Post would dub “the prince of polling” began as an economics professor at Brigham Young University and took up polling on the side in the 1960s.

It was poignant that one of Wirthlin’s clients—Barry Goldwater, modern conservatism’s political founding father—would introduce him to Goldwater’s political heir as a national politician, Ronald Reagan.  Wirthlin had just handled Goldwater’s comeback race for the Senate in Arizona in 1968 and Reagan was governor of California and briefly a GOP presidential hopeful that year.

Wirthlin freely admitted that, at the time, he believed much of what was written in the liberal media about 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.

But, he recalled, at a two-hour meeting in Reagan’s home in Pacific Palisades, California, the governor turned Wirthlin around and the two became close allies and friends for two decades.

After Reagan became President, the pollster moved his firm and family to Washington. D.C., and he was a frequent visitor to the White House.  Whether the issue was the tax and budget cuts that Reagan successfully got through Congress in 1981 or his explanation of the Iran-Contra affair (which Wirthlin told the President the public was not believing) in 1987, the pollster was usually consulted by the man in the Oval Office.  By all accounts, Reagan listened to what Wirthlin brought in from his survey research and focus groups but did not base any decision on what was shown to be popular or unpopular.

Wirthlin advised Fortune 500 companies as well as politicians, and started the trend of U.S. political consultants advising foreign politicians when he signed on as a client Britain’s Margaret Thatcher.

Wirthlin often said that Reagan won him over in large part through his optimism, a trait that all those who knew the pollster said he shared with his client in an abundant way.