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The fall election: a 'wait and see' proposition

In early August, Democratic and Republican strategists are apt to return calls from anywhere. The hired guns of politics are on the road, setting up campaigns for congressional districts and key statewide races. For them, vacations start in November.

But while the pros are hyper-busy, the voting public itself seems in no rush to judgment for this fall's races, particularly for the 435 seats in the House of Representatives.

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In fact, the public in 1982 so far seems surprisingly resistant to the downward drag of the economy. It seems to be discounting what are traditionally called the bread and butter issues.

So 1982 could prove a ''wait and see'' election.

The results themselves could prove mixed - with no clear verdict on the President or his party's handling of the economy. Shifts in House seats could follow the recent historical pattern of a 15 to 20 seat loss for the President's party in an administration's first midterm election, if only because competing factors cancel each other out.

Paradoxes abound in 1982.

The long recession, record unemployment, and forecasts for sluggish growth would seem to portend huge losses for the President's party. The Gallup Organization sees a Democratic lead ''of landslide proportions'' in House races, based on the public's 53 percent to 38 percent preference for Democrats at the moment in House voting.

One of the more novel models for forecasting election results, developed by Yale's Edward R. Tufte, predicts a Democratic gain of 40 seats. Mr. Tufte finds two factors in the past have closely tracked House race results - the President's popularity in the Gallup poll, and the trend in real disposable income. Gallup shows Reagan's popularity holding steady in recent months. Real disposable income for the public will spike upward the third quarter of the year , at a 9.2 percent annual rate, because of the tax cut that took effect July 1. For the year, however, real disposable income will climb only 2.2 percent in 1982, compared with 2.5 percent in 1981.

But against these fairly negative factors, the public does not yet seem to be letting the country's problems get them down.

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By another novel measure - the ''gross national spirit'' (GNS) index recently devised by Public Opinion magazine - the public's sense of well-being is about where it was last fall when the long recession was just getting under way. It is also about where it was during President Carter's second year, when the Democrats lost 15 seats in the 1978 election.

Given the delay in results from Reaganomics, many opinion experts and political analysts have been waiting for the bottom to fall out of President Reagan's public support.

Louis Harris notes that his latest survey (July 14) shows Reagan's job performance rating holding steady at 43 percent for the third month. However, Reagan's personal confidence rating showed a five point drop since June, Mr. Harris says. Such a drop is ''almost always a predictor of a slide'' for a President, Harris told the Monitor.

Reagan also gets a middling to poor report card from Gallup's latest reading, taken mid-June, of Reagan's impact on key issues. Reagan gets positive scores for better results in national defense, reducing the size of federal government, and cutting taxes. But the public says his policies have made things worse on inflation, balancing the budget, energy, world peace, the environment, and - by a 81 to 8 negative reading - unemployment.

Still, taking a broader view of how Americans think things are going, even economically, Americans are a shade more upbeat than they were last fall. In the GNS survey, between last November and early June, the proportion of Americans saying they are very satisfied or more or less satisfied with ''the way things are going in the United States'' rose from 54 percent to 58 percent.

The proportion thinking ''things will go better for the United States'' rose nine points. The percentage of people who think the US economy will get better or stay the same over the next year rose 15 points, to 68 percent. The lone downer in the GNS findings was in Reagan's job approval, off two points from November's 55 percent.

Four-fifths of the public still say they are satisfied with how things are going for them personally. And three-fourths report they are very satisfied (25 percent) or more or less satisfied (51 percent) with their own or their family's financial situation.

These broader measures of satisfaction show the American public keeping a sense of proportion about the economy. But they also have a cumulative effect that can bear down hard politically.

The composite GNS reading for early June was 1200, close to the rating of 1188, using an earlier version of the GNS measure, during Carter's second year. For Reagan, like Carter, the second year GLS rating is lower than during the first year of his administration. For Carter the GNS kept dropping to a low of 956 in 1980, when his party lost the White House, outright control of the Senate , and working control of the House.

The broader measure of satisfaction, despite the recession, also helps to explain the relative lack of public anxiety about unemployment. Despite the fact that 10.4 million Americans are out of work - and one of three households showing some kind of layoff or job cutback the past year - the overall sense of economic hardship appears muted. More wives working has also helped eased the burden of recession.

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