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The Mood of the Voter

[TIME for September 15, 1980]

As the race begins in earnest, the public is wary, worried -- and waiting

(TIME, September 15, 1980) -- Disenchanted, but not apathetic. Caring about issues, although much more concerned about character. Longing for a strong person to trust, but fearful of strength lacking sound judgment. Leery of weakness, but edgy about brashness. All too mindful of the disappointments of the past, but seeking hope in the future. Leaning toward one man, but often out of desperation and a sense of disdain for the others. Uncommitted. Unpredictable.

As the 1980 presidential campaign swings into full stride, the American voter is displaying a show-me attitude as perhaps never before: wary, worried and waiting to see how the candidates perform. This unwontedly watchful and volatile electorate has already turned the race into a highly personal, potentially nasty, intensely competitive -- and, yes, exciting -- contest. The voters who could give Republican Challenger Ronald Reagan a lead as high as 28% over President Jimmy Carter in July and then snatch it all away in August can hardly be regarded as the rock- ribbed supporters of party and candidates that flourished in days of yore. And if the Reagan rise was giddy and the Carter comeback startling, the gadfly persistence of Independent John Anderson adds even more bite and confusion. He blithely dismisses Reagan as "irrelevant" -- a product of the '20s -- and accuses Carter of abandoning his autobiographical guery of Why Not the Best? for a current claim of "I'm not the worst." With such a tight contest now taking shape, Anderson and his appeal to the disgruntled of both parties could prove to be the decisive difference in a few key states and swing the election, most likely to Reagan.

The latest public opinion poll conducted for TIME by Yankelovich, Skelly and White discloses just how close the race is once again. Carter and Reagan are deadlocked at 39% each, while Anderson's support is 15% -- precisely the level set by the League of Women Voters for him to qualify as a "viable" candidate and therefore earn a third spot in its crucial opening debate, set tentatively for Sept. 21 in Baltimore. Carter, who insists on meeting Reagan first without Anderson, still threatened last week not to appear if the Congressman was included. The league's directs were to meet this week to examine the range of recent poll results and decide whether or not to invite Anderson.

For so early in the campaign, a surprisingly low 7% of registered voters claim to be undecided about whom they now favor. (The study was based on a national sample of 1,644 registered voters interviewed between Aug. 26 and 28. The sampling error is thus plus or minus 3% and 4.5% when comparing present trend readings with previous TIME studies.) Still, the survey discloses just how shaky those current preferences are. Fully 55% say they are not "personally interested or excited about" any of the candidates. Only 11% report genuine enthusiasm for Reagan; a mere 9% feel that way about Carter and 6% about Anderson. In fact, much of the support given their preferred candidates is based on voters' opposition to the others, the choices are essentially anti votes. Thus 43% of the voters who prefer Reagan say they do so because they are "really voting against Carter." Similarly, 34% of Carter's supporters say their choice is based on opposition to Reagan, while a hefty 61% of Anderson's followers admit that they are motivated by being "against Carter and Reagan."

Though Carter and Reagan are even up in the race, the poll discloses areas of serious slippage for Reagan in important areas. For one thing, 59% of those preferring Carter claim they do so out of a positive feeling for him: they like his "experience," and consider him "safer" in foreign affairs. Only 48% of Reagan's followers feel a similar sense of confidence in their choice's ability to get things done and to answer the need for a change. At the same time, Reagan's rating on abilities regarded as important by voters has declined. In TIME's last survey in May, 49% of those sampled agreed that Reagan was a leader "you can trust," while 42% believe that now. Reagan was then considered "acceptable" as a President by 64%; the current figure is 54%. Voter confidence in Reagan's ability to handle the economy has dropped from an impressive 75% to 66%, and his perceived competency in foreign affairs has slipped from 72% to 63%. The Californian still worries voters on a basic level: 54% of those surveyed feel that he often does not get his facts straight, and 48% fret that he may be "trigger happy."

Despite these declines, Reagan still scores higher than Carter in such voter-valued categories as "standing up to the Soviets," "keeping our defenses strong," "getting the hostages out of Iran" and "making Americans feel good about themselves." On other matters, voters cannot see a major difference between Carter and Reagan on such matters as who could find more jobs for the unemployed, provided "moral leadership," cut back U.S. dependence on foreign oil, or avoid making too many campaign promises.

Geographically, there has been a significant shift in Carter's 1980 popularity in the South. Among white Southern Protestants, Reagan leads by 48% to 39%, indicating he has made inroads among the potentially influential evangelical and fundamentalist voters who supported Carter in 1976. THis leaves Carter with a statistically insignificant 1% lead in his home territory. Reagan commands a 10% margin in the West, while Carter barely stays ahead in the Northeast and Midwest.

This time the survey was deepened to poll more thoroughly in the nation's key industrial states (Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York). The aim was to detect any notable shifts in the blue-collar vote. Large-scale defections from the Democratic Party helped both Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon win the presidency and today seem vital to Reagan's prospects. So far, no real switch has been found. Carter leads by 10 percentage points among blue-collar workers, setting these states up as some of the key battleground between now and November.

The survey pinpoints one group of voters still posing a considerable problem for Carter: the former followers of Senator Edward Kennedy. Despite the efforts at the Democratic national Convention to patch up the party's deep rift and Kennedy's later pledges of support for Carter, the Senator's followers now split three ways on what they intend to do: 39% say they will back Carter; 28% prefer Anderson; a surprising 22% are so disaffected that they say they will jump over the wall and vote for Reagan. That degree of party defection could cripple the Carter candidacy. The mood could well be, however, just a passing stage of postconvention blues.

While the Kennedy problem lingers for Carter, the Anderson difference so confidently proclaimed by the earnest and stubborn Congressman from Illinois has not really faded either. If Anderson were to drop out, 37% of his present share of the voters say they would switch to Carter, 28% would go to Reagan and 26% claim they would not vote at all. With Anderson out, Carter narrowly leads Reagan in the nationwide popular vote, 44.5% to 43%. However, the sampling did not examine just how Anderson has scored 20% or higher in key states, such as New york, California and Massachusetts.

One of the most dramatic findings of the survey came from a more indirect probing of voter sentiment -- and it looks potentially helpful to Carter. In the survey's "state of the nation" indicator, which measures how people feel about the way things are going in the country in general and how much confidence they have in the future, voters are becoming increasingly optimistic. While only 11% took a positive view of the nation's well-being in May, 21% are upbeat now. As the incumbent, Carter would presumably benefit from any continued upsurge in optimism, which seems centered on a belief that the economy may be revving up again.

While nearly all the polls have found that the economy ranks first as an issue, well ahead of foreign affairs, the TIME study finds that, surprisingly, neither has much impact on voter preferences for the presidential candidates. Many polls reveal the voters are thoroughly confused when asked to make judgments about the candidates on most issues; the election seems much more likely to turn on personality than on policy, notes TIME National Political Correspondent John Stacks. One intriguing but as yet unexplained phenomenon that might be linked to issues is Yankelovich's discovery that 10% more women prefer Carter than Reagan. This is balanced, however, by Reagan's 10% edge among men.

The vacillations in the polls make most opinion analysts and political scientists leery about how the current campaigns and their various pitches will affect the voters. Traditionally, of course, a majority of postwar voters have turned to the Democratic candidates during a time of economic recession or depression on the theory that the party of F.D.R. is more likely to use Government tools to check the decline. But now a Democratic President is presiding over high inflation and a recession. Simultaneously, Government intervention in the economy has become more suspect. Observes M.I.T. Political Scientist Thomas Ferguson: "The signals coming down to the voters are incredibly mixed. There is an enormous amount of confusion even in the political parties. There is turmoil at all sectors of the electorate."

Appearing on a panel of pollsters convened in Washington by the American Political Science Association, Warren Mitofsky of CBS News's election and survey unit contended that the issues carry little weight with voters intent on examining the character of the candidates. Said he: "We are really seeing a loss of respect for our system of selecting our elective officials." This disenchantment with the candidates is causing voters to look at the personalities rather than the issues.

In a moment of rare introspection for a presidential candidate, Anderson last week talked at length to TIME Correspondent Eileen Shields during a flight from Detroit to Washington about the dilemma posed by the nature of the politician process in 1980. "I have a fundamental conflict in my thinking that troubles me deeply," he said. "I know if I want to please a crowd I repeat, just as Reagan does, the tried-and-true crowd-pleasers over and over again. But I am really going to repeat in my prayers every night the hope that I can resist the temptation. You know, when Carter and Reagan are so vulnerable it is hard to resist the temptation. But I don't think that is what the campaign should be about -- or what the country wants.

"I can't in the end really sell myself to the country if I am just going around knocking those two. I've got to have something fresh, constructive and different to offer, and it is hard. It is so hard to stay off that other kick, particularly when Reagan shoots four out of five toes as he has done the last couple of weeks. I am not contemptuous of applause. I want people to listen. I want them to respond. I want to inspire them. But I would hope that I have a higher calling than to simply play to the lowest common denominator."

Still, conceded Anderson, "we are like performers. You're up and you're down. Sometimes you think of something and it inspires you and sometimes you look at your watch and you are not so inspired." More than the other candidates. Anderson can move an audience with his oratory one day, only to turn off his next crowd with a ponderous and even pontificating style of delivery.

The President and the former Governor seem far less concerned about resisting the temptation that worries Anderson; they have been zapping each other with increasing zing almost daily. The attacks are deliberate. "Reagan is the best standup performer in politics today" says John Sears, the campaign manager whom Reagan fired last February. "But the fact remains that Reagan's position in the polls is derived from what people think of Carter." Thus the central issue for Reagan's campaign will be to denigrate Carter's record. Despite his speaking skills, Reagan has of course, been too busy trying to explain away a series of bloopers either to maintain a consistent attack on Carter's performance or to attract attention to the Republican policies that he has proposed.

Not only has Reagan fallen into uttering such needlessly provocative comments as advocating "official" governmental contacts with Taiwan, praising the Viet Nam War as "a noble cause," suggesting that Darwinism be countered by teaching the biblical story of creation as well, and terming the current recession "a severe depression," but his own advisers have jumped readily into the ensuing fray, like a Greek chorus of mourners, to concede in most cases that Reagan was wrong. Says Dean Burch, the senior adviser to Bush: "There is a possibility that the caricature of Reagan will become a reality. We have to guard against it."

While some of the impulsive Reaganisms may have pleased his more conservative supporters, they feed the doubts about his judgment that bother other voters. Thus the tense staff is trying to set up "fail-safe" systems to protect Reagan against Reagan. his aides are more carefully reviewing every speech text for pitfalls and insisting that the Governor just stick with the typed pages.

In addition, an outside heavyweight adviser -- last week it was James Lynn, who headed Gerald Ford's Office of Management and Budget -- will ride shotgun on the campaign planes to help Reagan. The staff itself, however, remains a problem: it is still far too disorganized. Says an old Reagan friend: "Ron doesn't know how to be tough with people. Sometimes he tolerates so-so performances."

More emphasis and money will go into Reagan's paid TV commercials. The budget was pegged last week at about $15 million, up $1 million from original plans, and seven spots (three five-minute and four 30-second plugs) have begun to be aired. They are slotted within, before or after such well-watched "family" shows as The Waltons, Guiding Light, Angie and ABC Friday Night Movie.

On TV, Reagan's delivery is warm, low key and artfully staged to project an air of sincerity. Contends Peter Dailey, Reagan's TV ad producer: "The camera can look into the soul. In Reagan's case, that's a big asset." While he has talked repeatedly about the need for the U.S. to regain nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, prompting Carter to accuse him of "announcing that he would start an arms race," Reagan's TV pitch will be milder. Seated in an easy chair, he says disarmingly. "To preserve our peace and freedom, we must maintain a margin of safety -- not numerical superiority . . . but a balance."

The basic Reagan geographical strategy remains unchanged. His aides estimate his firm base in the West will produce about 150 electoral votes. East of the Mississippi, such states as Indiana, New Hampshire, Vermont and Virginia are seen as reasonably safe, giving him another 30 votes, just 90 short of election. Even if Carter should hold the Deep South, which is far from certain, Reagan will look for his victory margin in five targeted states: Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida. They have 121 electoral votes, and if Reagan can win just the largest three, he should wind up in the Oval Office. Thus nearly 40% of his currently scheduled campaign time (49 days of travel and 95 major appearances) will be devoted to these five states.

At the moment, Reagan's aides consider his home state, California, safe enough to be downplayed a bit. New York looks fairly solid for Carter, but with the President being increasingly whittled away there by Anderson, the Californian may step up his efforts to win the state's 41 electoral votes. Anderson's prospects of taking more votes from Carter in New York will be strengthened if, as expected, he gets a place on the state's Liberal Party ballot.

As for the Carter staff, it has been astonished by its candidate's catch-up last week: "That Reagan is doing our work for us.' Other advisers are more cautious. Campaign Manager Robert Strauss professes to be worried that Carter's rally will generate overconfidence. Says he: "I don't think Reagan necessarily is dumb. I don't think he is going to get us into atomic warfare. I don't think he is evil. He's a very likable, attractive man." But Strauss pinpoints Carter's re-election strategy: to portray Reagan as "simplistic" and "not equipped to be President."

Proud of his presidential performance, Carter intends to play up his record. Still, the President's main theme will be to attack Reagan. Sums up Hamilton Jordan, Carter's chief strategist: "We can have a philosophical discussion about all the issues that face the American people, but the fact is the American people face a choice: Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan."

Strauss long ago correctly guessed that Reagan's advisers would limit his public appearances. Says Strauss: "They're going to try to show just a little bit of leg, but not enough to get him into trouble." By contrast, Carter will join the rough-and- tumble exchange of town meetings and press interviews, where he has invariably been at his best. Contends Strauss: "The public likes very much to see the President in the flesh, nonstructured and nonpackaged. He likes it too."

The Carter television campaign will stress his heavy responsibilities as President and portray him as being deeply concerned about the particular problems of unemployed blue-collar workers and older people. To tape his commercials, Carter has slipped quietly into a suburban Alexandria, Va., home to chat with eight housewives in a backyard. He has eluded the press to go to a construction site in Maryland to listen to workers, and he has visited a senior citizens' center in the District of Columbia.

So far, the Carter travel schedule is much more flexible than Reagan's; stops are generally set for only a week or two in advance. He expects to travel just two or three days a week, holding just one major event a day -- appearances timed of maximum free TV news coverage. To cut costs, he intends to avoid overnight trips as much as possible and has asked campaign aides to double up in hotels or stay with friends while on trips.

Geographically, the Carter advisers place great emphasis on the President's need to hold the South, where in 1976 he electoral votes. The Democrats know they must also win some states that Carter lost to Gerald Ford in 1976, including Michigan, Connecticut, Iowa and New Mexico. Differing with Reagan's assessment, they now see new hope of mounting a serious challenge in California, where Carter Pollster Pat Caddell has the President trailing by only eight points. Similarly, Carter will work hard in Texas, where he sees possibilities.

The Carter advisers are counting on Vice President Walter Mondale to shepherd unhappy Kennedy supporters back into the Democratic fold. One recruit about to sign up: Robert Kennedy Jr., now a law student at the University of Virginia Law School. Mondale is also busily holding "unity meetings" to strengthen the old Democratic coalition that many experts feel will grudgingly regroup as Nov. 4 and the prospect of a Ronald Reagan presidency loom ever closer.

As for John Anderson, the Carter tactic is to ignore him publicly and try to downgrade his importance. Privately, however, the White House is deeply worried about the Congressman's threat. In 1976 Eugene McCarthy, running independently, won just 1% of the vote, but the Carterites insist that was enough to tip Maine, Iowa, Oklahoma and Oregon into Ford's column.

Carter desperately wants to keep Anderson out of the first debate because of the invaluable exposure it would give him. Indeed Carter's men have even suggested that the League of Women Voters hold a five-way first debate, including Libertarian Candidate Ed Clark and the Citizen's Party's Barry Commoner, to take some of the play away from Anderson. But the league turned down the proposal. The President's strategists concede that they have been boxed in by Reagan and Anderson on the debate issue; they fear public wrath if the President ducks a first debate with the other two.

Anderson's chances of at least finishing the race brightened considerably last week. His cash-short campaign got relief when the Federal Election Commission ruled that he will be eligible for federal funds if he winds up with 5% or more of the votes. Although how much he could get will depend on how well he draws on Election Day, Anderson now plans to borrow $5 million, raising his anticipated war chest to $15 million. (Candidates who do not qualify for total federal funding are allowed to raise private funds to cover the difference between their eventual government grant and the full subsidy of $29.4 million.)

For all the candidates, last week was a time to put the varied theories of their strategists to the test. Determined to nominate the Old Confederacy once again, Carter perspired in shirtsleeves amid some 25,000 Labor Day picnickers in a dusty, red-dirt park in Tuscumbia, Ala. He strummed all the Southern heart-strings he plays so lovingly. He enjoyed the music of Country Stars Charlie Daniels and Larry Gatlin, and shared the stage with former Alabama Governor George Wallace. He told how he had toured the Gettysburg battlefield with his friends Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, and how it reminded him that "we Southerners believe in the nobility of courage on the battlefield, and because we understand the cost of war, we also believe in the nobility of peace." Carter's not so subtle point: he has worked for arms control, while Reagan encourages an arms race.

Well aware that a dozen Ku Klux Klan members were watching in silent, white-sheeted protest some 20 yds. away, Carter drew rebel applause with a deft putdown. "These people in white sheets do not understand our region and what it's been through," he said. "They do not understand that the South and all of America must move forward." Noting that the Klan had burned a cross in the town the night before, Carter said softly: "The One who was crucified taught us to have faith, to hope, not to hate, but to love one another."

A few hours later, Carter was the genial host at a far different kind of picnic: a shindig on the South Lawn of the White house for some 800 labor leaders and their wives. Desperately in need of labor support, Carter last week was rewarded with the endorsement of the diminished but still influential AFL-CIO.

Yet Carter's most symbolic act of the week was a visit to Independence, Mo., where he held a town meeting in Truman High School and smiled at signs that said: HARRY WOULD LOVE JIMMY and JIMMY CARTER, THE TRUMAN OF THE '80s. He visited the Truman Library, placed red roses on Truman's grave and paid an eight- minute call on ailing Bess Truman, the former President's 95- year-old widow. "When I take a step that's not very popular," Carter said at the town meeting, "I think of the unpopularity that Harry Truman had to suffer before he was finally vindicated."

Reagan, meanwhile, was making a strong pitch for ethnic votes in a Labor Day setting redolent of America's heritage. In New Jersey's Liberty Park, he shed coat and tie to speak before a backdrop containing the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the skyline of lower Manhattan. Scarlet-clad Korean girls sang God Bless America; an Irish war-pipe band in kilts played martial music from the homeland of Reagan's ancestors; and Polish dancers stepped out gracefully in their peasant regalia. Reagan's main coup was to present Stanislaw Walesa, 64, the father of the leader of the workers' protest in Poland, to the cheering crowd. Walesa, who lives in Jersey City, is not a U.S. citizen and has no political preferences. No matter. He helped Reagan by joining in a chorus of God Bless America.

Reagan candidly proclaimed his reason for opeing this phase of his campaign in Hudson County, N.J. "I'm here because it's the home of Democrats," he said. "In this great country there are millions of Democrats as unhappy as we are with the way things are going." Honoring the generations of immigrants, Reagan, in top oratical form, once again evoked the words of a Democratic President by putting a twist on Jack Kennedy line: "They didn't ask what this country could do for them, but what they could do for them, but what they could do to make this refuge the greatest home of freedom in history. But today a President of the U.S. would have us believe that dream is over, or at least in need of change."

Reagan flew on to Detroit, traditional site of Labor day speeches by Democratic candidates, and visited nearby Allen Park to grill sausages in the backyard of Emil Petri, a steelworker (and a Republican) who had invited over 20 neighbors to meet the candidate. Many of the guests were laid-off autoworkers and steelworkers, the kind of blue-collar Democrats Reagan hopes to lure away from Carter.

So far, so good, and then, once again, Reagan botched it. At the Michigan state Fair, he launched another attack on Carter and went too far. "Now, I'm happy to be here," he said, "while he (Carter) is opening his campaign down in the city that gave birth to and is the parent body of the Ku Klux Klan."

Thud. By linking the President with the Klan, Reagan not only outraged Carter's supporters but offended no less than seven Souther Governors, who fired off wires protesting that Reagan had insulted the South. The President promptly jumped on the blunder: "I resent very deeply what Ronald Reagan said about the South and about Alabama and about Tuscumbia. Anybody who resorts to slurs and to innuendo against a whole region based on a false statement and a false premise is not doing the South or our nation a good service." Indeed, Reagan had compounded his mistake by getting his facts wrong; Tuscumbia is merely the headquarters of a branch of the Klan. Reagan apologized by telephone to Alabama Governor Forrest ("Fob") James, and once again his aides sheepishly tried to explain that their boss had not really meant what he said.

All three candidates also paid homage last week to the Jewish vote that could prove critical in such states as New York, Florida and Illinois. The three pledged such rousing and unqualified devotion and support for Israel in speeches to B'nai B'rith in Washington that they all received standing ovations.

Reagan's pitch was the most pointed. He assailed Carter for the failure of the U.S. to veto a U.N. resolution condemning Israeli expansionism, charged that the Carter-negotiated Camp David documents contained "ambiguities" that "have now brought negotiations to a dangerous impasse" and drew his most fervent applause by declaring that "Jerusalem is now and will continue to be one city, undivided, with continuing free access for all."

In turn, Carter stoutly defended his Middle East policy, noting last week's announcement that Sadat and Begin had agreed tko resume talks, and declared: "There will not be one policy for an election year and another after the election. The same policy that led to Camp David and an uninterrupted supply of American economic and military aid to Israel will continue as long as I am President." But he admitted: "I cannot assure you we will always agree with every position taken by the government of Israel."

The tone of an increasingly acrimoniously campaign rose in pitch again as Reagan assailed Carter in the strongest terms so far. He cited recent news stories about a newly developed technique for shielding aircraft and other weapons against detection by enemy radar. Before a cheering audience of businessmen in Jacksonville, Reagan claimed this had been "the most tightly classified, most highly secret weapons information since the Manhattan Project." Disclosure normally would be illegal, he said. But he charged that "the breach of secrecy was blessed and sanctioned by the Carter Administration itself clearly for the sole political purpose of aiding Mr. Carter's troubled campaign." As a result, the Soviet Union has been handed "a ten-year head start on developing ways to counter this type of ultrasophisticated weapons system."

Defense Secretary Harold Brown angrily denied that the leaks about the defense technique were politically motivated. Responding to the Reagan blast, Press Secretary Jody Powell declared: "Any implication that the President or Secretary of Defense acted in a manner which damaged the security of this country is wrong and not responsible and goes beyond the acceptable grounds of political partisanship. Governor Reagan doesn't know what he's talking about."

With each candidate so eagerly on the attack so early, the 1980 presidential campaign could swing on a single event in such a volatile year. If held, the debates could turn the trick- perhaps even the very first one. But the candidates are all anxiously looking over their shoulders, wondering when lightning might strike. The Reaganites talk nervously, and sarcastically, of an "October surprise," some international event that Carter will be able to exploit as the incumbent.

As skirmishes ended and the battle was joined last week, Mondale summed up the long struggle to come succinctly, laconically and with a touch of world-weary realism. "Six weeks and 200,000 miles to go," he said. And all of it uphill for every man in the race.

By Ed Magnuson. Reported by Christopher Ogden/Washington and Laurence L. Barrett/Washington.

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