03/18/2011 07:38 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reagan Pollster Richard Wirthlin Remembered As Soft-Spoken Pioneer

WASHINGTON -- Richard Wirthlin, the pioneering Republican survey researcher and political strategist who polled for President Ronald Reagan, died on Wednesday in Salt Lake City at age 80. Former colleagues remembered him as an honorable, soft-spoken innovator who helped invent and define the role of campaign pollster.

Wirthlin came to political polling through the formal training in statistics he received in his doctoral-level economics studies at the University of California at Berkley, which he then applied in six years of teaching at Brigham Young University. In 1969, he helped found the opinion research company Decision Making Information, later renamed Wirthlin Worldwide.

He first polled for Ronald Reagan when the future president was seeking reelection as California's governor in 1970. As recounted to author David Moore for his book, The Super Pollsters, Wirthlin had not previously been "a strong Reagan supporter," at least not "until I met him." Although he initially thought of Reagan as "a two-bit, B-grade actor, four degrees to the right of Atilla the Hun," Wirthlin's view changed after he spend two hours alone with Reagan explaining the results of a poll on policy issues.

He soon became a trusted adviser, chief strategist of Reagan's successful 1980 presidential campaign and the pollster who reportedly met with Reagan in the White House every month to brief him on his latest surveys. Reagan later described Wirthlin as "the best in the business ... when he speaks, I listen."

Former colleagues interviewed by The Huffington Post spoke of Wirthlin as a trailblazer in the then-emerging field of campaign polling. "When we started in this business," recalled former Wirthlin Worldwide Executive Vice President Vince Breglio, "there really only were three firms operating in the political realm."

Neil Newhouse, a former Wirthlin executive vice president who would later form the powerhouse Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies (POS) along with fellow Wirthlin alumni Bill McInturff and Glen Bolger, remembers his old boss as "the father of current political research." Wirthlin deserved that credit, he added, both "from what he did back then and from the people he trained and brought along ... the success of our firm rests on his shoulders."

In addition to Breglio and the founding POS partners, former Wirthlin employees also include Republican pollsters Frank Luntz, Christine Matthews and Lance Tarrance, the founder of The Tarrance Group. Onetime Wirthlin CEO Dee Alsop went on to form a research company described on its website as "a WIRTHLIN inspired consultancy."

Wirthlin's former employees and colleagues credit him with a series of innovations that continue to influence the practice of campaign polling today. These include:

The right direction/wrong track question. Colleagues credit Wirthlin with being the original author of the question that asks whether things in the country are "generally going in the right direction" or have gotten "pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track." Most national media polls now track that question as a leading indicator of support for incumbent officeholders. As Wirthlin explained in a 2004 op-ed, the question helped inspire Reagan's now famous rhetorical question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Nightly tracking polls. David Moore credits Wirthlin with the first systematic use of the nightly tracking poll, in which a relatively small number of respondents are polled every day and their results are averaged in "rolling samples" of those interviewed on the day before.

Dial group tests. Newhouse says Wirthlin was the first campaign pollster to do what is now called "dial testing," the process of wiring up focus group respondents to mechanical dials that they use to constantly rate a presidential speech or debate.

Other innovations may have been less about invention than application within the realm of campaign-sponsored polling. Breglio credits Wirthlin with the first extensive application of advanced statistical techniques such as multiple regression and factor analysis. Republican pollster Steve Lombardo never worked for Wirthlin, but nonetheless sees his most "powerful and lasting" contribution as his pioneering measurement of political values. "He forced us to go beyond surface attitudes and to find the key 'value' that was driving that attitude. His feeling was that core values like beliefs in fairness or freedom were often at the core of public opinion, and that only by peeling back that onion could we begin to understand how to change attitudes."

While his former colleagues credited Wirthlin with a relentless work ethic -- Bolger recalls his old boss as someone "who always worked until the job was done right" -- they also recalled a soft-spoken gentleman who put his family first.

Evans Witt, a pollster and now the president of the National Council of Public Polls, remembers Wirthlin as "gracious and always interesting," someone who "liked to talk of the awe he felt when he first walked into the Oval Office, of, 'How did a guy like me end up here?'"

Bob Moore, a pollster who hired Wirthlin to conduct surveys for the National Republican Campaign Committee in the late 1970s, remembers him as "very understated" in contrast to other hired guns. "Political consultants today are basically show-offs. They are the opposite of understated," he said. "Dick was an old-school gentleman."

"He was a man of integrity," Newhouse said. "He lived for his family and he lived for his work. He nurtured those around him and he made everybody better."

Wirthlin disliked the title "pollster," however, saying he would "shudder" when called one. "'Survey researcher' is fine," he told David Moore, "or economist, counselor or consultant, but 'pollster' is too confining."