In Memoriam

The Circle Shrinks

Richard Wirthlin, who died last month, was Ronald Reagan's pollster for 21 years.

By 4.21.11

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On the first weekend in February close to 1,500 people gathered at the Reagan Library in California to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man they had served in Washington or Sacramento, Ronald Reagan. These were men and women who had held responsible positions in those administrations.

A little over a month later, a much smaller group -- those who had worked very closely with Reagan over time -- shrunk by one with the death of Richard Wirthlin at age 80.

Dick Wirthlin was Reagan's pollster for 21 years, through the Sacramento and Washington administrations He was, however, much more than a nose counter. From his findings in polling, census, and political data, he developed strategies for Reagan's campaigns and the years between. In his memoir, Wirthlin wrote, "He (Reagan) wasn't interested in being told what to say -- he intrinsically knew that. He was interested in the most effective way to convey that message." Wirthlin's continuous surveying and analysis during Reagan's campaigns and years in office gave his client insights into ways to calibrate those messages for maximum effect. 

In late 1978, not long before the Reagan exploratory committee was to be formed leading to a 1980 presidential candidacy, Dick added a new dimension to his survey research. He measured the intensity of feelings of respondents on key issues. For example, he found that people wanted to hear more from Reagan about solutions to the nation's economic problems. At the same time, Reagan's oft-stated concerns about the decline of U.S. military strength were well known and Wirthlin found that if he continued to emphasize them, his audience might consider him too hawkish.

It was Wirthlin's findings in 1980 that led to Reagan's emphasis on "the community of shared values" that embraced what became known as the Reagan Democrats. This writer recalls the three of us sitting on the edge of the bed in Reagan's suite in Detroit the day before he was to give his acceptance speech at the July 1980 Republican National Convention. We went over the final draft line by line to make sure it had just the mix of references to this and to other important issues.

Wirthlin, whose career began as an economist at Brigham Young University, got into polling at the behest of a political scientist friend who wanted some help with his work. Wirthlin liked it so well, he formed his own company. An early client was Barry Goldwater who then recommended him to Reagan. He found that his philosophy and Reagan's meshed closely. Wirthlin's firm built a clientele with major companies as well.

He continued surveying after Reagan became president. His presentations were always quietly stated. He was persuasive, never dogmatic, and had data to support his conclusions. Even if the news was bad, he never hesitated to tell his client the facts. One time, as the recession Reagan had inherited deepened and his approval rating slid below 50 percent, Wirthlin broke the bad news. Reagan thought for moment, then smiled and said, "Dick, I know what we'll do. I'll just have to go out and get shot again" (referring to his near death from an assassin's bullet).

As close as Wirthlin was to Reagan and his inner circle, he never joined his administrations. He remained an ally on the outside: straightforward, trustworthy, steadfast, a good friend to a great man and those around him. May he rest in peace.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”