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Reagan or Carter? US public far from making up its mind

The American people, despite heavy speechifying from Republicans last month in Detroit and from Democrats this week in New York, are in no hurry to make up their minds about the next man they put in the White House.

Public opinion experts warn mid-August is far too early to call the presidential race. At least half the voters at this point have not made up their minds. Even on Election Day, a 10th of the public -- enough to tip a close election -- will likely go to the polls with their choice in doubt.

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The public has yet to fix its sights on Ronald Reagan, who leads President Carter in the latest Gallup poll -- Reagan, 45 percent; Carter, 31 percent; and John Anderson, 14 percent.

Also American voters are not feeling as much distress over the way things are going in their lives as the political rhetoric may suggest.

True, they are down on their political leaders, the polls show. By 3 to 1 in the latest Gallup survey they disapprove of the way Mr. Carter is handling his job. And their confidence in their private financial futures has slipped a bit. But they do not appear ready for a throw-out- the-incumbent revolt.

In the nonpolitical part of their private lives -- their marriages, friendships, family, and leisure -- Americans report stable levels of satisfaction, according to the National Opinion Research Center's 1980 survey.

"Politics reflects only a small portion of people's lives," says Thomas Smith , director of the NORC's highly regarded annual surveys. "The basic finding is that in personal areas like family and married life, there has been no noticeable drop through the 1970s." Even the public's trust in government, which had shown a noticeable decline from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, has held steady for several years, the 1980 NORC study shows.

"Probably 50 percent of the electorate are susceptible to moving to any of the three presidential candidates," says Everett Ladd, director of the Roper Center. He sees a "sponginess" in candidate support -- in terms of party ties, levels of dissatisfaction with the candidates, and ideological attachment.

"This is incredible at this point of a campaign," Mr. Ladd says. "in 1900, perhaps only 10 percent would have been this 'movable' at this stage."

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"It's crazy to say who's going to win, based on present evidence," says I. A. Lewis, director of the Los Angeles Times poll. As much as 60 percent of the public probably has not made up its mind on presidential balloting, he estimates.

"Ten percent of the public are brass-bound Republicans already committed Reagan," he says. "On the Democratic side, perhaps 30 percent are brass-bound Democrats already with Carter. That gives you 40 percent you can forget about, plus some Anderson voters. That means there's nearly 60 percent you have to consider."

"Of course, about 25 percent are the ideologically oriented, upper-income, better educated," Mr. Lewis estimates. Their pattern of decision falls between Labor Day and two weeks before the election, his post-poll surveys suspect.

"The final 35 percent of the people make up their minds the last two weeks," Mr. Lewis says.

"It's incredible, but 10 percent of the whole population say they make up their mind the last day. I've seen it in 50 elections across the country, including national elections.

"There is no certainty about who will win -- regardless of the spread now in the polls."

Democratic pollster Peter Hart says, "Voters still have a long way to go in working through the decisionmaking process for choosing a president in 1980."

In a Canton, Ohio, "Discussion panel" with a cross section of voters, Hart researchers found the public still vague about Republican nominee Reagan.

The public seems to know relatively little about who Mr. Reagan is and what sort of president he would be.

"Reagan is not an especially polarizing figure -- he is not seen as the great redeemer, but neither is he viewed as a villain who might undermine the social framework established since the New Deal -- even though he has been widely depicted as taking strongly conservative stands on a plethora of controversial issues," the Hart research found. "Reagan has not yet really captured the imagination of the voters . . . About how he will make government produce different [and better] results than it has under Jimmy Carter."

The report concluded: "ronald Reagan's side of the equation in the 1980 presidential campaign is still far from being fully played out "

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