Head-to-head down the homestretch

Michael Posner November 3 1980

Head-to-head down the homestretch

Michael Posner November 3 1980

Head-to-head down the homestretch


Michael Posner

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan are down to the precious few. With less than a week to run in this long, acrimonious race for the Oval Office, polls show the president and his Republican challenger in a dead heat. The slightest shift in public opinion will determine the selection of the republic’s 40th president, or the re-election of its 39th. To win, Carter or Reagan must capture a majority (270) of the 539 Electoral College votes available. If one accepts the prevailing wisdom, the 69year-old Reagan is already more than halfway home; his lock on most of the western states, including California (see map), is thought to be unassailable. His support is strongest among white, middle-class Americans, among farmers unhappy with federal agricultural policy and among religious fundamentalists, for whom a politician’s views on prayer in the schools are as important as the strategic arms limitation talks. This last group claims two million new registered voters since 1976; most are expected to vote Republican.

Jimmy Carter’s strength is rooted in the foundations of the Democratic party—that broad coalition of lower-class,

blue-collar whites, blacks, Hispanics, liberals, Jews and Catholics. In 1976, for example, Carter drew 95 per cent of the black vote and 70 per cent of the Jewish vote; both helped deliver New York’s 41 electoral votes, without which he would not have won.

In 1980, the foundations are showing stress. Wholesale defections among Jews and Catholics, coupled with indifference among blacks and Hispanics, threaten to turn several otherwise certain Democratic states into the GOP col-

umn. The president is also vulnerable in the South. Four years ago, Carter won every southern state but one, a block constituting more than half his winning total. This year, only Georgia and North Carolina are regarded as secure, and no fewer than seven are too close to call. In a number of states, the president’s lead is less than three percentage points— roughly the margin of error in most voter surveys.

Yet the consensus remains that the election will be won and lost in a handful of heavily populated northeastern states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois—carrying a total of 99 electoral votes. The leads on both sides are too narrow for comfort.

Pennsylvania (27 Electoral College votes): Reagan had a clear advantage six weeks ago, but it has vanished. Carter has pulled even, perhaps slightly ahead. The state boasts 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. If the blacks and Hispanics can be lured to the polling booths in sufficient numbers, Carter wins.

Ohio (25 votes): The president carried the state in 1976 by 11,000 and won almost half the vote in the traditionally Republican southern tier. Now, Ohio’s unemployment rate is running at 10 per cent, a third of the state’s coal miners are out of work, the windfall profits tax on oil is hurting independent producers and the Bible-thumping evangelists think Jimmy Carter isn’t Christian enough. If Reagan is going to make a

breakthrough in the Great Lakes states, it will be here.

Michigan (21 votes): Thanks again to economic issues and unemployment, Reagan has a hairline lead. But 20 per cent of the electorate is unionized. If organized labor applies enough heat, Carter might well win a state that last time went Republican.

Illinois (26 votes): Both sides are claiming small leads here; both acknowledge the lead is meaningless. Jerry Ford won Illinois by two per-

centage points in 1976. The hostages coming home could make the winning margin much wider. Ford’s win was something of an anomaly: since 1922, it was the only time Illinois had failed to back the ultimate winner.

Over-all, pollsters believe Reagan has a small Electoral College lead but fails in the popular vote. Indeed, it is possible for him to win the election without capturing a majority of the popular vote. That would presuppose minimal fluctuation in public opinion between now and Nov. 4; there are few takers for such a gamble. Many factors will influence the final result and many are still unquantifiable.

Most critical is the on-again, offagain release of the American hostages in Tehran (see page 44). Should Carter successfully negotiate their release, the nation’s euphoria will more than override cynicism about political timing. In the words of one Reagan adviser: “If the hostages come home, that’s the ball game.” Totally beyond their control, the hostage situation has created feelings of deep frustration in the GOP camp. Says one Republican: “There’s a lot of guys over there sitting with wet towels around their heads.” At the same time, failure to secure the hostages’ release before Nov. 4 could imperil Carter’s campaign—precisely because expectation of their imminent freedom has been strung at high tension.

A second decisive factor will be this week’s debate in Cleveland. For Ronald Wilson Reagan, this will be his best opportunity to assure doubtful Americans that he does not really believe in shooting first and asking questions later—a perception that has damaged his campaign, especially among women. For James Earl Carter, the debate is a forum to display his intellect, his mastery of government statistics, his superior grasp of the nuances of foreign and domestic policy. Better still it is his chance to raise the level of excitement about the election itself. Since most registered voters are Democrats, the more Americans who vote, the better the president’s odds for re-election.

But there are other unknowns. The consumer price index was up again last week, underlining the president’s dismal performance on economic issues. Will Carter’s meanness—his imputing to Reagan racist, warmongering instincts—translate into anti-Carter votes? Will Reagan’s several blunders— the two-China stumble, the claim that pollution is largely under control, the statement that Vietnam was a “noble cause”—cost him the presidency? Will the magical aura of Ted Kennedy bring enough ethnic and Spanish-American voters to the ballot box to secure Texas (26 electoral votes) for Carter?

What finally will be the impact of John B. Anderson’s independent campaign? Anderson is running strong in Connecticut and Massachusetts—traditionally Democratic states—but his support in recent polls has plummeted. How loyal will his disciples be in the end? Loyal enough to award the election

to Reagan? Or enough to ensure that neither Carter nor Reagan wins a majority of the College, thus throwing the presidency to the House of Representatives to determine? And, how does one assess the outcome of Carter’s diligent use of the powers of incumbency in this campaign? In the past eight weeks, his administration has dispatched $100 million in relief aid to Florida for assimilation of Cuban and Haitian refugees and arranged for transfer of 2,500 refugees to Puerto Rico (no Electoral College votes). It has promised Louisiana a coal shipping port; lobbied Congress to approve $300 million in fresh loan guarantees to New York City; awarded $92 million to Chicago for a new regional transportation authority; doled out $9.3 million to Michigan for a proposed gasohol facility; and lavished almost $80 million more for housing renovation, job retraining, rapid transit and summer work programs. In Octo-

ber, Carter cabinet members, including Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and Secretary of Defence Harold Brown— once considered nonpolitical offices— have spent 110 campaign days on the road, stumping for the president. Analysts said in 1976 that Jerry Ford’s use of incumbency had broken all existing records. Now the record book will have to be rewritten.

The campaign itself has been a cockfight for the political centre. Reagan’s flight from positions that made him the darling of the Republican right has been a marvel to behold. In recent weeks he has declared support for federal aid to New York City, for the Chrysler bailout, for women appointees to the Supreme Court—positions he once would have been uncomfortable with. Protecting the centre, Carter has tried to make Reagan’s prior platforms the focus of voter attention. The president’s disregard for even the real achievements of his administration has been scrupulous. Based on data derived from polls, Carter has articulated one theme: a Reagan victory would plunge America into a reckless nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and perhaps into war. Few candidates for the presidency who succeed in making their opponent the perceived risk to peace ever lose. Whatever these charges may have cost Carter in terms of his “decency” image, it is clear that playing to fears about Reagan’s hawkishness has been substantially successful.

About the substantive issues, there has been remarkably little discussion. Although Carter and Reagan disagree on major points, most observers concede that differences over the size of any proposed tax cut or how far to ease environmental standards to put Americans back to work—these differences are not going to decide the election. The ayatollah might; and if not Khomeini, then the debate. The race is an absolute toss-up, a coin flip, a roll of the dice. And in the United States of America, there are no higher stakes. ;£>