The Mood of the Voter

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

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, 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 nourished 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 query 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 directors 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 1% of registered voters claim to be undecided about whom they now favor.* 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 and 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."

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