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Wirthlin: The passing of a giant

With Richard Wirthlin’s passing, the world of survey research lost a pioneer, the business of political consulting lost a giant and I lost a role model, whose creative mind, interpretative genius, personal grace and commitment to his core values were unsurpassed. We did not agree politically, but he was as kind as he was brilliant and, in many ways, I owe the very idea of my career to him.

Dick’s work and writing, and others’ reports about him (and listening to David Gergen speak at graduate school), inspired me to recognize the possibility of doing the work I love.

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When I first started, I told clients I wanted to be Dick Wirthlin for Democrats. It was a bridge too far and a bar too high for me, but he set the standard to which I aspired. 

Trained as an economist, Wirthlin pioneered the use of advanced statistical methods in plumbing poll data, teaching us how to squeeze meaning and strategy out of dry data and arcane coefficients. 

After the 1980 election he published a chapter outlining how he had used polls in devising Ronald Reagan’s winning strategy. I pored over that text probably a hundred times in the last 30 years — the yellowed pages are now detached from the binding and so worn they’re practically transparent. Much of what I know about my craft came from concentrated study of that chapter. 

One of the tools I was most proud of in John Kerry’s presidential campaign — a model using demographic, political, economic and polling data to predict the likelihood of victory in each state and the way in which resources should be allocated — was a direct rip-off of Wirthlin. My copy of the book is temporarily in storage, but I have read it often enough to paraphrase the first reference — “As our campaign plane made its final swing, Nancy Reagan asked me if we were going to win. I was able to give her the probability of wining, not based on instinct but based on data from our PIMS [political information management system].” I read those words (and a few more) and I knew I had to have what Dick had invented.

Dick was behind a host of innovations. In 1980 he developed daily tracking polls to help Ronald Reagan beat back George Bush’s challenge and win the New Hampshire primary. Two years later, Wirthlin lieutenant (and brilliant analyst in his own right) Vince Breglio, then executive director of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, put Wirthlin’s tracking polls to work. The Sunday Washington Post following the election carried a piece by the late, and equally lamented, David Broder, headlined “Tracking: Daily Poll Helped GOP Keep Senate Edge,” chronicling the critical role these surveys played in John Danforth’s narrow victory. His opponent’s campaign manager was quoted shaking her head and saying, “If we had that information we might have won.” Soon Dick’s daily tracks were ubiquitous.

In 1987 I read a reprint of a book by Columbia sociologist Robert Merton describing a technique he used for evaluating propaganda films during World War II, out of which I “developed” dial testing — only to find Dick Wirthlin had beaten me to the punch by half a decade. 

The “right track/wrong track” question, dubbed the Dow Jones of politics, which has graced almost every political poll for over a quarter-century, is another Wirthlin innovation.

Wirthlin’s contributions were not just in the realm of technique. He understood and documented the central role values play in campaigns — and the campaign he designed for President Reagan reflected this wisdom. 

Most important of all, Dick Wirthlin was a wonderful human being. Committed to family, faith and charity, he lived his values. He didn’t yell or curse, leading by the force of his intellect and the strength of his example.

Dick’s memory will be a blessing.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.