The crowds at political rallies are telling us something. Despite much advance work to stir up attendance, the crowd at a Birmingham, Mich., rally for Reagan was only moderately large and more warm and enthusiastic.
So were the audiences that came out to greet Mr. Reagan on his day-long bus tour through Illinois, from Peoria, to Bloomington, to Lincoln, to Springfield, and into St. Louis.
Only at Eureka College, where Reagan drew on close personal ties, did the cheering take on the kind of emotional intensity that sometimes marks the audience response to a candidate during all or much of a campaign. John Kennedy drew such crowds. So did Einsehower.
The President's best audiences are those where he gets their interest by answering questions at town meetings. Mr. Carter is good at that.
But, by and large, most of the people who come out to Carter appearances are there simply because they want to see a president, any president. And the response is usually several decibels below enthusiasm.
On the day before joining the Reagan bus tour, I rented a car and traveled much of the same route, starting in Peoria and ending up south of Springfield. I talked to farmers and to those who lived in towns and cities along the way.
People were uniformly friendly. And, whether they admitted it or not, they seemed on the whole pretty happy and fairly prosperous. They all had complaints. The farmers didn't like the prices they were getting. Housewives didn't like the prices they were paying.
There was some unemployment in the cities. But the tour didn't take me through any pockets of despair. I was not traveling through the big-city black ghettos. Most of the people I talked to seemed to have happy plans. They were going hunting. Or to a high school football game. Or "in town" for shopping. Or some other kind of outing.
But, despite all kinds of advance notice about Reagan passing through or speaking there the next day, there was very little spontaneous talk about the event. When asked how they viewed the Reagan visit, some expressed an interest.Some said they would or might show up to see him the next day. But generally the response added up to: "Who cares?"
This was by and large Republican country. And Reagan may ver well win this area and, for that matter, the entire state of Illinois -- although the contest is viewed as very, very close at this point.
When pressed, many citizens indicated they would vote for Reagan. But little enthusiasm was expressed about this choice. It sounded very much like "two cheers for Reagan." And those who said they would probably, or possibly, vote for the President were even less excited about their choice. Indeed, it often sounded like "one cheer for Carter."
So it is that reporters and pollsters see widespread voter apathy in 1980 and forecast that the lowest percentage of voters since Coolidge was elected may turn out to cast their ballots this year.
But it is something more than the usual brand of voter disinterest that reporters are encountering. It's more than just a general feeling taht the candidates themselves are not all that outstanding. And it's not like the voter disinterest following Watergate where the people simply distrusted their public servants at every level of government -- and where they had become cynical about politicians in general.
This cynicism has departed for the most part.
In its place, however, one finds a widespread and deep-seated feeling that the system isn't working -- and that, no matter who is elected President, it won't make much difference: The winter won't be able to cope with the immense and complex problems facing the nation.
A farmer near Springfield put it this way: "I like Reagan. But I doubt if any president can do much anymore."
Commented a youth in Lincoln: "Carter? Reagan? What difference will it make? None that I can see."
Said a housewife in Peoria: "Prices keep going up. I don't believe that anyone -- Carter, Reagan, or Anderson -- can do anything about them."
Yet the feeling that the President and, indeed, government in Washington cannot do much about problems is being expressed in a context of contentment with life in general. This isn't a beginning of some movement to bring about government reform.
Many people are simply shrugging their shoulders this year about an election in which they feel that no one, no matter how skillful, can turn the presidency into a position of really effective leadership.