The nuclear freeze vote - which will be before nearly 1 out of every 3 Americans Nov. 2 - constitutes an unprecedented public opinion poll on nuclear arms policy, according to many observers.
Yet some polls indicate that many Americans are unaware of their opportunity to vote on this aspect of US foreign policy.
In nine states, the District of Columbia, and some three dozen cities and counties across the country, ballots will include the proposed bilateral, mutually verifiable freeze on testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union. The measure, which is not legally binding, would request the President to propose such a freeze to the Soviets. Wisconsin voters approved a similar measure in September.
Organizers of the nuclear freeze campaign say the Reagan administration may try to undercut support for their effort in the few days remaining before the election. They concede there's no hard evidence of any plan by the White House to do this. Nevertheless, freeze activists are bracing for any such move - and trying harder than ever to reach the many voters who apparently aren't aware of the proposal.
The most fierce freeze battle may be waged in California, which is home to 10 percent of all Americans, and has garnered national attention as the first state to launch a statewide initiative drive.
An Oct. 18 Los Angeles Times poll, for example, found that 40 percent of voters had never heard of the freeze proposal. When given a brief summary of the measure and arguments for and against it, 48 percent of those polled said they would vote for it and 42 percent said they opposed it. An Oct. 16 California Poll, on the other hand, showed that 64 percent of voters polled had heard of the proposal. Of that 64 percent, 42 percent said they favored it, while only 18 percent opposed it.
Campaign polling, says Harold Willens, the state's freeze coordinator, shows at least two potentially vulnerable points for the freeze effort: the perception among voters that the freeze is a unilateral measure (which he says it is not); and a fear that a freeze would place the United States in a weakened posture vis-a-vis the Soviets, a point heatedly debated by those on both sides of the issue. He says both of these points will be addressed through advertising.
According to Mr. Willens, the campaign has set a goal of $900,000 to be spent on television, radio, and newspaper advertising in the final weeks before the election. Already, he says, $200,000 of that total has been spent and another $ 350,000 raised.
''We're relying heavily'' on media advertising, he explains. ''In the final phase, when you come right down to it, it's the only way to reach people.''
Much of their effort right now is focused on lining up freeze experts to rebut a White House ''October announcement'' - if and when it comes. A White House spokeswoman said she does not know if a major policy statement on the subject of nuclear weapons is forthcoming.
But Ben Senturia, referendums coordinator for the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign National Clearinghouse, says such an announcement by President Reagan could range from new revelations about arms reduction talks to a warning about trusting the Russians.
''He's got the national platform,'' says Mr. Senturia. ''He's got the visibility. . . . If we get the startling White House announcement, then I think we're in for a real tussle.''
Although nationwide drives against the freeze proposal are being planned by groups like the Moral Majority and the American Security Council, a pro-military political group, coordinators in at least two of the nine states with a freeze measure on the ballot say that even if the anticipated White House statement is made, they expect the proposal to pass.
In New Jersey, where volunteers have passed out leaflets, made phone calls, and worked with local churches, state campaign manager O'Brien Boldt notes that the freeze plan enjoys widespread bipartisan endorsement - including support from the state's Republican governor, Thomas H. Kean, its Republican candidate for US Senate, Rep. Millicent Fenwick, and all but one of the 15 members of the state's congressional delegation. Statewide polls show as much as 4-to-1 support for the plan among the approximately two-thirds of the voters who have heard of it, Mr. Boldt says.
In Michigan, Pat Robertson, state co-coordinator for the freeze effort, notes similar bipartisan support for the measure.