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Richard B. Wirthlin, 80, pollster, dies

LOS ANGELES -- 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. "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 several leading pollsters and was respected by colleagues in both major parties.

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

"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 Association 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."

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.

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