It is a truism of presidential politics that voters seldom are satisfied with their choices. Like Gucci shoppers in a discount warehouse, they find the merchandise wanting. The candidates are flawed, the refrain goes: they are owned by special interests; they are bankrupt of ideas. Messerschmidt is utterly incompetent, Nudelborg utterly naïve. In a nation of 225 million, is that all there is?
This year it is different. This year it is worse.
Orestes, among other ancient Greeks, approached the oracle at Delphi to learn his future. Modern politicians take polls. Jimmy Carter’s pollster, Patrick Caddell, issues a new voter survey every day. If one campaign tactic fails to register, find one that works.
The pollsters are everywhere this season, churning out a synopsis and analysis of every tic and spasm in the body politic. The results, in a word, are grim. Almost half the voters expressing a preference for Ronald Reagan consider their choice a vote against Jimmy Carter. A goodly number of Reaganites are dyed-in-thewool Democrats for whom voting Republican would once have been self-administered poison. At the same time, fully one-third of the president’s supporters contend they are voting not for Jimmy Carter but against Reagan’s version of republicanism, his views on abortion, gay rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. A surprising number are loyal, card-carrying members of the GOP. Bob Merkle, a United Auto Workers community action program director in Detroit, noted recently: “What you’re hearing is T don’t want to vote for Carter, but I don’t have any choice’... It sure would be easier if we had somebody we could vote for.”
And then there is John Anderson. His stubborn endurance in the polls suggests that something more than his appeal to the Perrier-and-quiche set is at work. John Anderson cannot win, yet several million Americans, perhaps 10 per cent of the nation’s electorate, refuse to accept Carter or Reagan under any circumstances.
For them, Carter is weak, indecisive, vacillating, mean, unctuous. They give him high marks for intelligence, but add: what good has it done? Reagan is equally unacceptable-shallow, lazy, surrounded by right-wing zealots on whom he depends too much. Reagan might well use the presidency for “taking a long nap,” as one wit wrote, but who’s going to be running the Oval Office while he’s asleep on the couch? Some would like desperately to believe in the nostalgia that Reagan’s candidacy evokes, that hearkening back to an unblemished era of simple pieties, simple pleasures. But they cannot accept it. Four years ago, Jimmy Carter carried a Bible and offered them his own version of
the myth—“a government as good as the people.” They do not want to be conned again. No less than The Washington Post recently editorialized: “There is no way, given the nature of the two prime contenders, that this country is going to elect a president... especially gifted in or suited to the conduct of the office.” So much for the good news.
Disapproval of the principal candidates can be read on another barometer as well. At this stage in most campaigns, nine out of 10 voters have made up their minds. This year, the arena holding the Great Uncommitted has standing room only. In some states, the numbers are said to be as high as 35 per cent. In others, against all precedent, the undecided vote is actually rising as Nov. 4 draws nearer. This is not indecision; this is grave concern.
According to some estimates, as many as 80 million eligible Americans will not vote on election day. This trend is
decried every four years as evidence of increasing voter apathy. A more logical explanation is that the candidates and their parties have failed, that voting endorses a political process that does not adequately address their needs. Almost half the electorate will cast no ballots on election day. This is not apathy; this is disgust.
For millions who will vote Nov. 4, the choice will be based on 90 minutes of artfully orchestrated parry and thrust: this week’s Carter-Reagan debate. Jimmy Carter claims that his narrow victory over Gerald Ford in 1976 was due largely to Ford’s statement in their second debate that Poland, among others, did not feel itself dominated by the Soviet Union, a liberation at odds with the facts. Curiously, in polls taken within 12 hours of that debate, a majority of respondents said that Jerry Ford had won. It was only after the press engraved this faux pas on the national consciousness that public opinion named Carter victor. It was all the momentum he needed.
The current presidential race is now so close that most analysts believe the debate will tip the balance decisively. Either Carter will press too hard, exposing his viciousness, or Reagan will look like the village cretin next to the president’s show of facts. Both will be careful to avoid the big gaffe. The leadership of the Western world and the outcome of the entire campaign—the primaries, caucuses, conventions, the post-Labor Day media circus—now rests on the denouement of 90 minutes of prime-time theatre. It is a sobering thought.
In the end, the election is still Jimmy Carter’s to lose. Incumbent presidents are rarely beaten. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one. Whatever the sins of their candidate, most Democrats will usually vote the party ticket. If they vote. If they do not, then smilin’ Jimmy Carter is more despised than even his worst enemies would have hoped.
Michael Posner is Maclean ’s Washington bureau chief.
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