The next President of the United States could be elected with the support of only 28% of the eligible voters, a fact that explains much about the campaign now under way. Of the 150 million Americans of voting age, about 38 million will not bother to register for voting privileges. (In Canada, voters are enumerated; in the United States they must register themselves under a variety of state laws, some of which are confusing and discriminatory.) Another 27 million, while registered, will not bother to vote. The contest involving the remaining 85 million can be won on the votes of just over half of them, just over one quarter of
the electorate. Triumph will go to the party with the lowest apathy ratio, and that is why the election will probably wind up a good deal closer than it looks today.
On paper, the Democrats have all the ingredients for a sweep. Their man, Jimmy Carter, emerged from the New York convention July 15 with his grin agleam, every carefully tousled strand of hair in place, and the party apparently firmly behind him. Out in Kansas City a month later, Gerald Ford barely wrestled the Republican convention away from Ronald Reagan and his California cowboys, many of whom hold key party positions as a result of pre-convention infighting, and some of whom are still sulking. At the Atlanta airport after the convention, a returning Republican committee man was asked if he was going home to work. “No,” he sighed, “I’m going home to cry.” Clarke Reed, head of the Mississippi delegation, which started out pro-Reagan and wound up narrowly pro-Ford, told the Washington Post: “Politics used to be fun. Not now.” The floor of the Kemper Arena, where Ford won his Kansas victory, was littered with bitter signs: SEND FORD TO HELSINKI; SEND
REAGAN TO WASHINGTON, and KISSINGER LOVES KREMLIN and A VOTE FOR FORD IS A VOTE FOR CARTER. They are gone to garbage now, but not forgotten.
The Republican split is far from healed. What is more, the vigor of the Reagan campaign thrust upon the nervous Ford forces a platform fashioned of the finest 19th-century materials. It is to the left of Genghis Khan but right of Barry Goldwater. It repudiates détente, gun control, and any easing of voter registration rules that would “cheapen the ballot.” It wants no part of national health insurance, legalized abortion or busing to achieve racial balance in schools; instead, it wants pray-
ers in schools, loopholes in tax laws, and statehood for Puerto Rico. Only a bitter battle prevented the platform committee from advocating an end to all federal aid for education, which would be supported, instead, by taxes on cigarettes. Light Up For Learning.
By contrast, the Democratic platform, which comes out, vaguely, for health insurance, jobs and a more flexible foreign policy, looks positively progressive. It will certainly be easier to defend among the great mass of American voters already predisposed to Jimmy Carter—who leads Ford by 10 points in the most recent Gallup poll—and to the Democrats—who stárt with the sympathies of 46% of the electorate, compared to 22% for the Republicans. On paper, all that remains is for Carter to shuck a few peanuts, hold a few press conferences around daughter Amy’s lemonade stand, and pack for Washington. But elections aren’t won on paper, they are won in trench warfare, and the Democrats still have some problems in the trenches.
First, there is the problem of apathy. Carter’s lead in the polls may promote complacency; that is why the candidate keeps pointing out to press conferences that he is bound to slip as the campaign goes on, and why Republicans have such terrific nostalgia for Harry Truman. Truman, they say, was another incumbent President who came from behind, whose innate decency and truthfulness allowed him to hold on against an overrated challenger. Truman was never as far behind Thomas Dewey as Ford has been behind Carter in the polls, and the Republicans weren’t calling Harry decent and truthful in 1948, but the underdog image may help Ford and hurt Carter. Two out of three unregistered voters, according to the surveys,
lean to the Democrats; if the Democrats can’t convince them to register, the odds will shorten.
There is also the fact that Carter’s troops are more enthusiastic about victory than they are about Carter. During the New York convention, Democratic caucus meetings were marked by speakers shouting “We can live with this guy! We can live with him!” in varying tones of entreaty and hysteria. After all, the Georgian won his primary victories by directly attacking Congress—in Democratic control for the
past few decades—bureaucracy, and many politicians. It was fun for the public but not for the bureaucrats, public planners and politicians who make up the bulk of party workers. “I’ll work for the ticket,” one New York committeeman said, “as long as nobody expects me to like that son-of-abitch.”
Carter’s vagueness, so handy in the primaries, has now become a liability. At both conventions, the most popular story making the rounds was about the time when Jimmy was a boy and his father found that someone had cut down a peanut plant on the Plains estate. He confronted Jimmy, who replied: “I cannot tell a lie, father. Maybe I did it, and maybe I didn’t.” Carter will have to become more specific to shake off that image, and that is why Ford, an able debater for such a dull-seeming man, issued his challenge to a series of television confrontations. Whoever wins those, they will have the effect of forcing Carter into specific positions on a number of issues— abortion, busing, right-to-work laws—on which he has taken fuzzy or contradictory positions. He is likely to appear as a man who doesn’t differ all that much from the man he wants to replace, and that may turn off Democrats without impressing independents.
While the Presidential candidates debate, their heirs and assigns will also square off. Senator Robert Dole, Ford’s vice-presidential choice, was a surprise to the party hierarchy because his protestant, conservative, Kansas background offers no balance to the ticket. But he was chosen for knuckles, not balance. Senator Barry Goldwater once said of Dole that “he’s the first man around here in a long time who
will grab the other side by the hair and drag them down the hill.” When a newsman noted a few years back that “If you liked Richard Nixon, you’ll love Bob Dole,” the Kansan was tickled pink, although he has dropped the belligerent pro-Nixon stance that marked his speeches until the President was frog-marched out of the White House. He is an alley-fighter—Carter called him a “cage rattler”—and will probably play a more effective role for the Republicans than the moderate, witty but unassuming Senator Walter Mondale will play for the Democrats.
This is already becoming a drag-themdown-the-hill election, with Carter referring to the “Nixon-Ford” administration, while the Republicans call down the fleshy sins of Representative Wayne Hays and Liz Ray, and the long list of transgressions the Democratic Congress has to its credit. In a really dirty contest, the Republicans may gain, if for no other reason than that such campaigns tend to turn voters off from politics entirely, increasing the advantage of incumbency.
Finally, there is the X-factor, the something that happens in every campaign that no one expected. The X-factor is more likely to aid an incumbent, who can do something, than a challenger, who can only complain that he would have done something else. In the Mayaguez affair, soon after he took office, Ford showed that he was capable of extracting political gold out of a foreign policy crisis, and in the more recent tree-pruning incident in Korea he has shown he hasn’t forgotten how to look firm and tough and even, on occasion, Presidential.
Ford’s backers have indicated their strategy will be, in effect, to write off the South and concentrate on California, the middle industrial states and the northeast. They will give liberals and moderates only a passing nod and aim for a coalition of fed-up independents and party-line conservatives. They are aiming at a minority, but that may be enough.
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