When President Carter turned caustic last month, challenging Ronald Reagan’s competence in boldly personal terms, it wasn’t the Devil who made him do it—it was pollster Pat Caddell. Similarly, when Reagan made a sudden about-face and agreed to a one-on-one debate with Carter, it was his pollster, Richard Wirthlin, who recommended that do-or-die decision. Directing the candidates’ campaigns with all the authority of twin ancient oracles, these relentless daily probers of public opinion now determine not only the candidates’ allocation of resources, but also what the candidates say and at what pivotal time or place they say it. As Campaign ’80 staggers to a climax this weekend, the Presidency could all ride on a pollster’s brainstorm—or glitch.
Consequently, when Reagan fired his chief campaign strategist, John Sears, last February, he immediately replaced him with Wirthlin, who had handled his vote surveys for more than a decade. Says Wirthlin, 49, who has set up his research team on the fourth floor of the Reagan-Bush national headquarters in Arlington, Va,: “We have the first shot at all the critical decisions.” Across the Potomac, two blocks from the White House, Caddell can claim the same order of influence. “The role a pollster plays today is light-years different than it was when I first came into this thing in 1972,” says Caddell, 30, who polled for George McGovern’s unsuccessful presidential bid back then. “Now I am involved in basically all levels of the campaign.”
Caddell’s routine is a draining one. He confers with the President by phone two or three times a day, sits in on the morning meetings of the Carter-Mondale campaign committee and clears “all the damn speeches” that Carter delivers. By the time he has sifted through the daily random telephone survey results of voters and approved new questionnaires, he has only four or five hours left for sleep. That means no time at all for the Georgetown bachelor lifestyle that he has enjoyed the past three years. “I feel like I have an 800-pound gorilla on my shoulders,” he complains.
For Wirthlin, allegiance to Reagan has meant a merciless succession of 18-hour days and long separations from his wife and the six of their eight children still back home in Whittier, Calif. A onetime economics professor at Brigham Young University, Wirthlin began polling for political friends in 1964. Four years later he took his first survey for Reagan, then in his first term as governor of California. Instrumental in the choice of George Bush as running mate last July, Wirthlin also helped write Reagan’s acceptance speech.
By Election Day Wirthlin’s staff will have conducted 79,600 phone interviews in over five months. Each day the results are fed into computers to identify shifts in voter opinion, attitudes toward Reagan on specific issues and likely reactions to campaign developments. “My job,” says Wirthlin, “is to look at the daily readouts of data to see where there are possible votes.” But if that all sounds clear-cut, well, it isn’t, as Caddell would undoubtedly agree. “It’s easy to get caught up in all the math,” admits Wirthlin, “but politics is still an art, not a science.”