Richard Bitner Wirthlin, LDS general authority and pollster for Ronald Reagan, dies at 80

Published: Wednesday, March 16 2011 9:29 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Richard Bitner Wirthlin, an LDS Church general authority who was Ronald Reagan's chief strategist and pollster, died Wednesday of natural causes. He was 80.

Born in Salt Lake City, Wirthlin was a close adviser to Reagan for more than 20 years and directed Reagan's successful presidential campaigns in 1980 and 1984.

According to a press release, Reagan once said of him, "Dick Wirthlin is the best in the business ... When he speaks, I listen." Former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III called Wirthlin "a great man, a great friend and an invaluable counselor to President Reagan."

Wirthlin chronicled his relationship with Reagan in a 2004 book.

He also served as an adviser and pollster to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Wirthlin started a company in 1969 that eventually became Wirthlin Worldwide, one of the largest market research firms in the world. Most of the Fortune 100 companies have been clients of the company.

His work ethic was summed up in a favorite quotation: "If you don't make dust, you'll eat dust."

Wirthlin earned bachelor's and master's degrees in economics and statistics from the University of Utah and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley. He was later an economics professor at BYU.

Known by some as "the father of modern polling," Wirthlin pioneered many new polling techniques, including voter-precinct targeting, computer-assisted telephone interviews, "values" research, "people-meter" groups and Internet-based surveys.

He was a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, following the service of his father Joseph L. Wirthlin, a presiding bishop of the church, and his brother Joseph B. Wirthlin, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.

Wirthlin served a mission to Switzerland and Austria from 1951 to 1953 and was a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy from 1996 to 2001.

Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, said, "Richard Wirthlin's vision and knowledge of the world were very important to planning for the future growth of the church."

Wirthlin is survived by his wife of 54 years Jeralie Mae Chandler, eight children, 27 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

"We are grateful for our father's life, love, example and heritage of faith," said his son, Richard L. Wirthlin. "We will greatly miss him until we are together once again."

Services will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Cottonwood 5th Ward, 5913 S. Highland Dr.

E-mail: pkoepp@desnews.com Twitter: pbkdn

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