Democratic pollster Irwin “Tubby’’ Harrison operated like a smoke detector. Notoriously blunt and usually right about candidates whose fortunes he predicted for 30 years, he sounded alarms long before anyone saw smoke.
Candidates who heeded his warnings and retooled their messages got elected, political strategists say, while those who dismissed him as a dour curmudgeon usually wound up giving concession speeches.
“When you were in trouble, he knew it before the numbers showed it,’’ said Jack Corrigan, a close friend since the two worked together on the 1988 presidential campaign of former Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis. Corrigan, a lawyer and political activist, recalled that Mr. Harrison could see doom ahead in that campaign even when polling numbers were high for Dukakis.
Mr. Harrison, a longtime Brookline resident who polled voters for the Globe and for Democrats such as Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston and US Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, died of congestive heart failure on Christmas Day in Emeritus Senior Living in Allentown, Pa. He was 81.
“If you listened to him, you won, and if you didn’t, you lost,’’ said Boston political strategist Mary Anne Marsh of the Dewey Square Group, a public relations firm. “It was always amazing to me how many people didn’t want to hear the truth.’’
She called Mr. Harrison a mentor and a genius at divining the hearts and minds of voters.
“He just had an uncanny knack for knowing what people thought, what they were looking for, what they wanted,’’ she said.
Dukakis was the incumbent governor when he lost to Edward J. King in the 1978 Democratic gubernatorial primary. In 1982, Mr. Harrison predicted correctly that Dukakis would win the primary rematch with King.
Mr. Harrison also anticipated that Francis X. Bellotti, a former state attorney general, would lose to John Silber, the Boston University president, in the 1990 Democratic primary for governor, even though Bellotti had a double-digit lead in some polls.
One race Mr. Harrison conceded that he missed was the stunning margin of victory Paul Tsongas posted in 1974 in the Fifth Congressional District, which Republicans had held for decades. Tsongas won by 21 percentage points. Mr. Harrison expected him to win by only 6.
Born and raised in New York City, Mr. Harrison was a Harvard Law School graduate who worked for the US attorney’s office in New York in the 1950s, and later in private practice. His father was an accountant and a lawyer.
Rail thin and bald since college at Columbia University in New York City, from which he graduated in 1951, Mr. Harrison was known as Tubby, a childhood nickname.
“He liked it enough to carry it into adulthood and asked others to do the same,’’ said his only child, David, of New York.
“Politics was his passion,’’ said David, a senior writer for IBM Global Business Services. “He was on the phone constantly.’’
His father, he added, “reveled in the realism of his business. He was prepared to give bad news to someone to improve their chances of winning.’’
In the 1960s, Mr. Harrison was introduced to the art of polling by a Harvard Law School classmate, David Goldberg of Brookline.
Goldberg had worked on the 1964 campaign of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a former US senator from Massachusetts who was the surprise write-in victor over candidates Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary.
Mr. Harrison “saw what a good time I was having,’’ Goldberg said.
In the 1990s, the two formed the polling research firm Harrison & Goldberg, whose clients included the American Petroleum Institute.
“Tubby was extraordinarily good,’’ Goldberg said. “He was a very wise, smart guy. He wasn’t a statistician, he was a lawyer. He knew what questions are really going to be the most helpful when you’re representing a client; what questions are most likely to deliver valuable research; and how you ask a question makes all the difference between day and night.’’
Mr. Harrison did all his work on legal pads and never used computers. He loved taking the pulse of the electorate at the bar of the Stockyard or at the Palace Spa, both in Brighton.
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin said he came to think of Mr. Harrison as something akin to a cancer doctor.
“You never got good news,’’ Galvin said. “If you were the client, he would look on the glummer side of things.’’
Galvin said that when he was campaigning in 1990 for state treasurer, Mr. Harrison’s polling for the primary election showed him well behind George Keverian, then speaker of the Massachusetts House.
Galvin, then a state representative, had little name recognition outside of Boston and began campaigning hard in Western Massachusetts. Mr. Harrison called one day with an urgent message.
“You caught him. You’re ahead,’’ Mr. Harrison reported in an unusually sunny forecast. Galvin won the nomination, but lost the election.
“You could rely on his analysis,’’ Galvin said. “He was a very insightful guy and a very thoughtful guy.’’
Mr. Harrison “took a devilish delight in telling liberal candidates to be tough on crime,’’ said Dan Payne, a Boston political analyst and friend.
“He was not afraid to get up in candidates’ and campaign managers’ faces and say, ‘You’re wrong,’ ’’ Payne said. “He was never just a numbers guy. He was an active, lively presence in any strategy meeting.’’
Mr. Harrison and his wife, Nancy, were married 52 years. He retired in 2007 to care for her following spinal surgery, and his own health deteriorated, their son said. The couple moved to New York in 2008.
Mr. Harrison’s grouchy, outspoken ways masked a soft, true heart, friends said.
“He was very authentic,’’ Corrigan said. “He had a sort of gruff exterior, but he did care about people. He was very warm-hearted, but he didn’t really let you know that. He was into the truth in a big way.’’
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Harrison leaves his brother, Robert of Hilton Head, S.C.; his sister, Ann Roberts of Westport, Conn.; a granddaughter; and two grandsons.
A memorial service will be announced.
Just before Mr. Harrison died, Corrigan and Marsh visited and sought one last bit of soothsaying on a potential presidential campaign matchup between Republican Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and President Obama, the Democratic incumbent. “When I pushed him on whether Obama could beat Romney,’’ said Corrigan, “he said, ‘Yes.’ ’’
J.M. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com.