Richard Wirthlin, a longtime pollster and strategist for Ronald Reagan, passed away due to renal failure on March 16, a day after his eightieth birthday.
The holder of a doctorate in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, Wirthlin started working for then–California Governor Reagan in 1968, quickly became a valued advisor, and continued to work for him through his two terms as president. For more than two decades, Wirthlin’s polling was key to shaping Reagan’s approach to campaigning and governance.
During the 1976 presidential primaries, Wirthlin’s findings guided Reagan’s criticism of President Gerald Ford’s plans to cede control of the Panama Canal, contributing to victories in a number of states. In the 1980 presidential campaign, Wirthlin urged Reagan to attack President Jimmy Carter’s economic leadership.
Once Reagan was in office, Wirthlin’s polling helped drive and shape the president’s confrontations with the air traffic controllers (by showing overwhelming public support for their firing) and the Soviet Union (by showing that the public wanted Reagan to present a tough posture while maintaining lines of communication). “When he speaks, I listen,” Reagan once said of Wirthlin.
Wirthlin pioneered a number of new polling techniques, among them the use of computers to assist in telephone interviews, the inclusion of voter-precinct targeting in surveying, and the use of dial meters to gauge how people reacted to various parts of speeches. He launched Decision Making Information, a public opinion firm, in 1969, and later changed the name to Wirthlin Group and then Wirthlin Worldwide. Wirthlin sold the firm to Harris Interactive in 2004, but stayed on as a member of the acquirer’s board of directors.
Wirthlin is survived by his wife, seven of his children, twenty-seven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.