Richard B Wirthlin: Reagan adviser who pioneered the art and science of the modern pollster

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The Independent Online

If Ronald Reagan transformed American politics, then that was due in no small measure to Richard Wirthlin. Reagan might have been the "Great Communicator", but Wirthlin was the man who made sure the Reagan message hit home. In the process, he more or less invented the modern trade of campaign pollster.

The two first joined forces during Reagan's campaign for a second term as California governor in 1970. Wirthlin, who had worked for Barry Goldwater, the defeated 1964 Republican presidential nominee, originally had a low opinion of Reagan, regarding him as "a two-bit, B-grade actor, four degrees to the right of Attila the Hun". That view, however, changed when the pair met for a couple of hours to discuss one of Wirthlin's polls. Politician and consultant got on famously, not least because Wirthlin saw in Reagan a fellow optimist. For his part, the future president recognised a professional who was peerless at his craft. Quickly Wirthlin became a trusted adviser and would remain so for almost two decades. As Reagan would put it, "When he speaks, I listen."

Richard Bitner Wirthlin was the son of a Mormon bishop and throughout his life was active in his Church. He acquired an interest in polling while studying as an undergraduate at the University of Utah, and during two stints as a Mormon missionary in Switzerland and Austria in his early 20s. He then took a doctorate in economics at Berkeley before setting up his own market research company, Decision Making Information.

The business quickly attracted prominent corporate and political customers, but it was with Reagan that it made its name. Wirthlin helped in Reagan's losing campaign for the 1976 Republican nomination before plotting the landslide victories of 1980 and 1984. Constantly he honed his candidate's image, using polling to discover how best his conservatism could be delivered to voters.

"Reagan," Wirthlin wrote in a 2004 memoir, The Greatest Communicator, "wasn't interested in being told what to say – he intrinsically knew that. He was interested in the most effective way to convey his message."

Wirthlin achieved that through a battery of techniques now commonplace, but which then were positively revolutionary. They included computer-assisted phone interviews, "values" research and nightly tracking polls, as well as the wiring-up of focus group members to measure scientifically their shifting responses to a speech or a candidate's debate.

Wirthlin (left, AP) is also credited with devising the "right track, wrong track" question that is now a standard index of America's national mood. He used these methods not just before elections but while Reagan was governing. For better or worse, he was the inventor of the "permanent campaign," as practised by every occupant of the Oval Office since.

Reagan may have been one of the few presidents who didn't much bother about opinion polls. Even so, Wirthlin would test his ideas with the public – and Reagan's respect was such that he paid attention. Sometimes he would smooth the rougher edges off his candidate's conservatism (helping persuade voters make the crucial leap of faith to Reagan in his 1980 victory over Carter). When Reagan was seeking nuclear arms cuts with the Soviet Union, on the other hand, Wirthlin would emphasise his conservatism, to reassure Americans that their president would drive a tough bargain.

By the time Reagan left office, Wirthlin's business had gone global, and he carried out polling for, among others, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2004, Wirthlin Worldwide, as it was by then, was sold to the Harris Interactive group for a reported $42m.

In one striking respect, Wirthlin was very different from the political pollsters of today. They tend to be egotistical and opinionated – but Wirthlin was the opposite, polite and invariably modest about his trade. Indeed, he once said, he "shuddered" when he was referred to as a pollster. "'Survey researcher' is fine," he once said, "or economist, counsellor or consultant. But 'pollster' is too confining."

Richard Bitner Wirthlin, psephologist and pollster: born Salt Lake City 15 March 1931; married 1956 Jeralie Mae Chandler (four sons, four daughters); died Salt Lake City 16 March 2011.