“The Oracle” of Utah politics, Dan Jones, died Friday after a prolonged illness at the age of 84.
Born in Ogden and raised on a farm in rural Idaho, Jones went on to teach American government to generations of young people and for decades was recognized as the state’s preeminent pollster, advising senators and congressmen and every governor since Cal Rampton’s 1964 campaign.
“His influence on the state of Utah is hard to grasp, if you think of all the people he’s worked with. … He has gradually become the man, anybody of any stature in the state has said, ‘Let’s go talk to Dan and see what he has to say,’ ” Gov. Gary Herbert said Friday.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, who hired Jones to poll for him in his first race in 1976, said that Jones was “a remarkable man who had a profound impact on Utah’s political landscape. Most importantly, he was a great friend. Elaine and I will miss him dearly.”
Jones got his start teaching while he was serving in the military, holding weekend classes on the U.S. Constitution for visiting Hungarian freedom fighters.
In 1959, Jones began teaching in a civilian capacity, after a call-up of National Guard troops for the Korean War left schools with a teacher shortage. Jones taught American government courses at Granite High School and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Utah that year to get his teaching credentials.
It was that same year that Jones landed his first polling job — conducting a survey for The Salt Lake Tribune in the Salt Lake City mayoral contest between the incumbent J. Bracken Lee and Bruce Jenkins.
“That had the greatest impact on me and I knew I'd get involved. I would teach and not preach," he said. "I would try to get students to say 'What can I do for my country?' instead of so much 'What can my country do for me?'"
Jones moved to Utah State University in 1968, running the school’s Bureau of Government Research, and Jones had a flair for the classroom. He would roll his head back and talk in almost a whisper, drawing students in, then build to a crescendo.
“Passion sells and Dan had passion,” said Doug Foxley, a prominent lobbyist who took Jones' course at Utah State. “He would mesmerize the students. … You could hear a pin drop and it would have startled everyone. He just had that master gift.”
Foxley said he and other students would go door to door gathering data, and a few years later, Jones turned it into a business, Dan Jones and Associates, which Jones and his wife, former state Sen. Pat Jones, built into the go-to polling firm for Utah candidates and news outlets.
Ted Wilson met Jones in 1975, when Jones did some polling for Wilson’s Salt Lake City mayoral campaign and later taught alongside him at the University of Utah.
“How ya doing, Wilson?” the former mayor recalls Jones asking. “I’m fine, plus or minus three percentage points,” Wilson would respond.
“He tried to be as fair as he could to everyone and explain the numbers to people if they were mad about it,” said Wilson, who was later the Hinckley Institute of Politics director. “I’ve always thought he was a man of the highest integrity and he took the polling business really seriously.”
Jason Perry, the current director of the Hinckley Institute at the University of Utah, said Jones’ commitment to the classroom was remarkable.
“In 50 years of teaching, he only missed one class, and he felt so guilty about it he got Sen. Orrin Hatch to be the substitute on that day,” Perry said.
On election night, Perry said, Jones’ anxiety would go through the roof and he would pace waiting for results to come in, not because of uncertainty about the accuracy of his work, but because he understood that voters and candidates would be impacted by what he said.
Bob Henrie, a top adviser to Hatch and Herbert, said he has worked over the years with the best pollsters in the country and he respected Jones for his work and as a person more than any of them.
Henrie recalled in January 2017, when Hatch called a meeting of his top advisors to look at running for one more term in the Senate. Jones walked Hatch through a slew of polling numbers.
“It was clear to Senator Hatch that a substantial part of the Utah public felt that it was time for him to retire and give somebody new a chance,” Henrie said. The poll numbers weren’t what made up Hatch’s mind, Henrie said, but some time later, Hatch contacted Mitt Romney about running for his seat, if he decided to retire.
“Every major elected official that I’ve worked with in the state has done no different,” Henrie said. “They do not make a major decision, especially about their career, without having one or many good sessions with Dan to get his insight and his advice.”
Jones fell ill over the summer and was hospitalized for several weeks. He was moved to an assisted living center but in recent days his health had deteriorated and he contracted pneumonia.
Herbert said he had hoped to spend part of Tuesday night at Jones’ bedside — that Jones would live to see one more election night.
The governor said Jones’ legacy in the state will live on, both because he used his gifts as a pollster to shape policies that reflected the will of the people, and in the tens of thousands of students who he helped to understand politics and get excited about government.
“He is going to be sorely missed because of that. Nobody is going to replace Dan Jones,” Herbert said. “I consider it one of the greatest blessings of my life to say he was a friend and a mentor to me, and I was a better governor because of that.”
Jones is survived by his wife, their three children, a stepson, and three children from a previous marriage.