From the traditional Labor Day start of the fall campaign, the 1980 presidential race looks like the most unpredictable in decades. The major candidates are statistically even -- within the margin of error -- in the public polls: Ronald Reagan 39 percent, Jimmy Carter 38 percent, and John Anderson 14 percent in the Gallup poll; Mr. Reagan 38, President Carter 37, and Mr. Anderson 17 in the Roper poll.
Not only is voter opinion evenly divided, it is also "soft," "wavering," and "unusually unjelled," in the experts' views.
Anderson's presence in the race adds another whole element of uncertainty -- making the contest into a three-dimensional chess board that defies ready analysis by even the most experienced election-watchers, says Richard Scammon of the Elections Research Center.
Labor Day poll standings since 1960 have shown a remarkable record of projecting the man to beat.
In every case, the front-runner in Gallup's last poll around Labor Day won in November. Moreover, the Labor Day front-runner's standing was within a point or two of his actual election result. In several cases, the winner's Labor Day standing was even closer to his election percentage than was his last poll standing on election eve.
John F. Kennedy on Labor Day, 1960, had 49 points and finished with 50.1 percent of the popular vote. Richard Nixon started the home stretch in 1968 with 43 percent and finished with 43.4. Carter in 1976 had 51 points and finished at 50.1 percent of the vote.
It has been the underdog on Labor Day whose support has moved the most. Hubert Humphrey trailed Mr. Nixon 43 to 28, with George Wallace at 21 percent, in 1968. While Nixon's support never wavered, Vice-President Humphrey's surged, while Governor Wallace faded toward the end. Carter's support in 1976 proved softer than other recent Labor Day front-runners and sagged five points -- still no great movement -- before recovering at the end.
This year, however, the candidate running second as of Labor Day -- Carter -- is so close to the nominal front-runner -- Reagan -- that he hasn't room like Humphrey in 1968 or Gerald Ford in 1976 to gather momentum.
Even the Anderson candidacy has no direct precedent Says Shirley Wilkins, president of the Roper Organization: "Anderson is the first third-party candidate in a long while who hasn't been extremist. He's a middle-of-the-roader."
"We don't know which of the two front-runners will move, or how the Anderson candidacy will affect the result," says Albert Cantril, president of the National Council on Public Polls. "A difference between Wallace and Anderson was that Wallace's support was more regional."
"In the most recent polls there has been a substantial drop from hard to soft for Anderson," Mr. Cantril observes. "If he's out of the first debate, his support could drop to the 2-to-10 percent range. But even then he could make a dent in California, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin, and have a tremendous impact on Carter's standing."
The experts' rough calculation is that Carter is the most likely to trend upward, and that Reagan will likely hold steady. Being even in the polls at Labor Day isn't enough for Reagan, the conventional Washinton wisdom holds.
In the Roper soundings, 9 out of 10 reagan voters said they were "pretty definite" they would stay with their man, compared with 8 in 10 for Carter and only 5 in 10 for Anderson.
Others put the indecision factor much higher.
"The electorate is unusually unjelled," says George Gallup Jr. "The proportion of wavering voters is very high. Support for any of the three candidates is . . . abnormally soft."
"Our polls show Anderson pulls Carter down eight points [and] Reagan down one ," Mr. Gallup says. "If Anderson fades, it helps Carter. If he holds, he hurts Carter."
Voter registration efforts in the home stretch could prove the determining element, Mr. Gallup believes. "Our data show 71 percent of those registered to vote at this time is almost exactly the same as in 1976," he says. "Since an average of eight in 10 registered voters actually show up, the turnout should be the same in 1980 as in 1976. The party that wins the voter registration battle from here on will win the election."
Almost any event could prove decisive, says Everett C. Ladd, director of the Univerity of Connecticut's polling research center.
"The level of indecision alone makes this the most unpredictable election in recent years," Mr. Ladd says. "Ties and attachments to parties and candidates are weaker than ever before.
"Large numbers of undecided voters -- as much as 50 to 60 percent -- are looking for something to decide on. It could be something so slight as a speech , a phrase, an outside event. A single issue, like Carter's excluding Anderson from a debate, could turn enough undecided voters against him to cost Carter the election."
While voters may be undecided and unenthusiastic at this point in 1980, they apparently are not completely turned off.
"I expect turnout to be about 53 or 54 percent -- about waht it was last time , . . ." says elections expert Austin Ranney. "This is an election with a considerable lack of enthusiasm -- but not alienation or rejection of the process itself. Actually, in 1976, the largest group of nonvoters were those who thought both candidates were pretty good guys."
How poll leads held up Labor Day Last poll Election before electionresults 1960 Kennedy 49 5150.1 Nixon 45 4949.9 1964 Johnson 62 6461.1 Goldwater 32 3638.5 1968 Nixon 43 4343.4 Humphrey 28 4242.7 Wallace 21 1513.5 1972 Nixon 61 6260.7 McGovern 33 3837.5 1976 Carter 51 4650.1 Ford 36 4748.9 1980 Reagan 39 ? Carter 38 ?? Anderson 14 ?? Source: the Gallup Organization