The public mood
That eminent campaign-watcher and analyzer, Theodore H. White, is finding new powers and new politics as he sifts voter attitudes. And he says that ultimate victory in November will depend ''far more'' on which candidate is best able to read and react to this new public mood than on organizational skill and on winning a lot of primaries.
Mr. White, in a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, puts much emphasis on increased female and black interest and participation in the political process. He says that ''added to the black vote, the gender gap may be impossible for the Republicans to surmount.''
But what White doesn't say is that the old mood of the 1970s and early '80s is still around and, perhaps, dominant. More than anything else there is a widespread public feeling that might be called the ''agin'' factor. Millions of Americans remain very unhappy with what they regard as big government and with those who are involved in the Washington political scene.
Jimmy Carter was the outsider who rode this anti-Washington sentiment to the presidency in 1976. Ronald Reagan was the next outsider to benefit from this voter desire to shackle the excesses of the federal government.
Carter had promised voters he would make government, as he put it, as good as they were. He never really joined the establishment. Therefore, his defeat in 1980 did not stem from his failure to try to change the system. It was more his perceived inability to get things done. So people decided he was the wrong outsider. And they turned to Mr. Reagan.
Recently, in tapping voter attitudes I found that the ''agin'' factor has, if anything, become more intense than in previous years. It takes these forms:
* There is a ''left out'' feeling that, particularly, fuels the movement by blacks and other minorities into the increased participation in politics that Mr. White notes.
But many of those in what used to be called the white power structure are voicing this same kind of frustration with what they see as a government in Washington that simply isn't responding to their wishes.
Ronald Reagan eased some of these anxieties for many people for a while. And among the well-to-do the view of Mr. Reagan is still that of a President who is doing a pretty good job of bucking the Washington system.
But there is a growing feeling among those who make up the middle- and upper-middle income groups that Reagan is no longer the outsider that he once was - and that he is no longer jousting in their behalf.
* There is an increased public perception that Washington - meaning both the President and Congress - isn't dealing responsibly with tax revenues.
The massive budget deficit may be too complex to be an issue. But one quickly senses a voter disquietude with what is now generally regarded as exceedingly bad business practices by those who run the nation. Thus, there is a no-confidence vote that a lot of people are going to cast next fall, in one way or another.
* Finally, there is an extension of what reporters and pollsters have seen for several years - expressions from people of all walks of life which are put in words like these: ''What's the use of voting for president? We'll get no improvement no matter who is elected.''
Thus, there will likely be a continuation of the downward trend in voting for president, come fall.
Perhaps, if this falloff does not take place among the disadvantaged - if there is a vast increase in voting in that group - an upset for Mr. Reagan could take place.
But no ''Mr. Outsider'' is emerging among the Democrats. Walter Mondale is very much a part of the Washington political scene. And so are John Glenn, Gary Hart, Ernest Hollings, Alan Cranston, and George McGovern. And Jesse Jackson and Reubin Askew don't seem to be in the running.
Reagan is working to reestablish his ''outsider'' image. He is now taking on Congress with a vengeance. And he's polishing up his attack on big government and big government spending. The President seems to understand the mood of the country better than his Democratic opponents - enough so as possibly to be able to defeat a genuine, longtime Washington insider like a Mondale.