There is an old rule in politics that the party in office will do well on election day if the economic situation turns favorable one month before that day of decision.
Well, you and I do not know whether the economic indicators in the US turned favorable at the beginning of October because of natural causes or because of management of the economy in Washington (probably it was a mix of the two factors). But the fact remains that as the calendar hit October the indicators began to show a rising economic barometer. employment figures were up. GNP figures were up. Particularly encouraging was a rise in US export figures indicating that the US is getting back into a competitive position in world markets. The dollar was getting stronger on the money exchanges.
As was to be expected, this improvement in the economic situation of the country was reflected in public opinion polls. They began to suggest that Mr. Carter had narrowed the gap between himself and Mr. Reagan in spite of Mr. Carter's own folly in telling the country that a Reagan victory would be a "catastrophe." Of course it would not be a catastrophe for the country. Besides , Mr. Carter is not an authority either on Mr. Reagan's record as governor of California or as a prospective president.
Mr. Carter does better when he sticks to his own job at the White House and talks about matters on which he is an authority. He knows a great deal about the state of the world and of the American economy. And he knows even more about the record of his own years in the White House where he has probably done better than is usually assumed even among some of his own staff.
Then why on earth did he hurt himself unnecessarily by passing judgement on what kind of a president Ronald Reagan might make? He was strongly advised against just such personal and unjustified attacks on his opponent. But, like Mr. Reagan's frequent flashback slogans from his early campaigns when he was the darling of the right-wing reactionaries. Mr. Carter acts on his own impulses.
His charge that a Reagan presidency would be a "catastrophe" goes down in the record books of campaign folly along side of Mr. Reagan's unnecessary association with people who doubt that the Deity listens to prayers by Jews. People who talk that way are usually on the political right, hence they are going to vote Republican anyway. Mr. Reagan does not have to attend conventions to be confident of their vote.
These follies of 1980 can be put alongside of George McGovern's proposal to give $1,000 to every man, woman, and child in the US and George Romney's statement that he had been brainwashed about Vietnam. There are others on the list, none more foolish than Mr. Carter's personal judgment on Mr. Reagan, which was so manifestly self-damaging that it had to be regretted.
The unfortunate fact is that neither Mr. Carter nor Mr. Reagan has behaved with that gravitas,m maturity, and sophistication that one rather hopes to find in presidential candidates. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who is more mature and sophisticated, finds it difficult to suppress his own inner preference for John Anderson, who is also a sophisticate alongside Messrs. Carter and Reagan.
The follies of 1980 obviously have much to do with the fact that this campaign is remarkable for the number of prospective voters who say they have not yet decided which way they will cast their ballots. It runs as high as 37 percent in the polls, which is well over one third of the total.
Many a campaign is closely run. The Nixon-Humphrey campaign in 1968 was a cliffhanger to the end. Had the elections been a week later Humphrey might have won. He was closing in fast on Mr. Nixon during the final week. But there was nothing like a third of the electorate which had not made up its mind in that your by early October.
This "undecided" third of the 1980 electorate indicates that a lot of voters are not enchanted by Mr. Carter's record or by Mr. Reagan's prospective performance. What is going to sway them at the last moment? The latest economic figures would seem to help Mr. Carter. Release of the hostages in Iran before election day would be another boost. But Mr. Carter could wipe out both of those possible gains by more intemperat outbursts.
The essential conclusion at this moment is that unexpectable events just might change the pattern decisively between now and Nov. 4. It is even conceivable, although hghly unlikely, that those "undecideds" could all swing over to John Anderson at the last moment -- which would indeed be an "upset."