Washington — Pollsters for the four leading presidential candidates anticipate that a major shift in candidates' strength -- possibly 10 to 15 points in national polls -- could result from the New Hampshire primary.
With just a dozen days to go before the first actual ballot test of the 1980 race, the number of undecided voters seems to be growing. One candidate's pollster says the number of undecideds has doubled -- a conclusion confirmed by a pollster for the opposing party.
The electorate was "in a state of flux" right after the Jan. 21 Iowa caucuses -- when George Bush was thrust 21 points higher in national polls by his slim 1. 7 percent win over Ronald Reagan. Now, voter preference appears to be getting ready for another major swing after New Hampshire, pollsters for candidates Reagan, Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Edward Kennedy say.
Mr. Reagan, almost unnoticed in the rush of attention to former UN Ambassador Bush since the Iowa caucuses, has been rebuilding his strength nationally among Republicans. A week before Iowa, Mr. Bush stood at 6 percent nationally in the Harris survey among Republicans, and Mr. Reagan at 32 percent. The day after, Mr. Bush soared to 27 points and Mr. Reagan edged up 1 point to 33 percent. Since then, in the latest Harris survey, released this week, the former California governor has widened his lead over Mr. Bush -- 38 to 30 percent -- among Republicans.
In a not-yet-released Harris survey of the Democratic race, President Carter has widened his 2-to-1 edge over Senator Kennedy.
Such gyrations in voter support are unlike earlier patterns -- particularly the "classic" 1960 John Kennedy/Richard Nixon election year, when public opinion held within a four-point split for the nominees from January to November -- pollsters for today's candidates told the Monitor. The electorate seems even quicker to shift than in 1976, when a 30-point Carter edge over President Ford after the conventions shrank to a hair's breadth at election day, they say.
Candidates Carter, Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush all seem ready either to gain or lose big in national support after New Hampshire.
Reagan supporters recall their candidate slipping 15 to 20 points in his Florida standing in 1976 right after his narrow loss to Mr. Ford in New Hampshire. This time, Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin expects "at least a 10 -point swing" after New Hampshire for his candidate or Mr. Bush as they head for the South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia primaries beginning March 8.
"I'm finding sharp swings in the electorate," says Mr. Wirthlin. "I thought the Carter situation, his comeback over Kennedy, was a one-shot event, a rally-around-the-flag, compassion-anger reaction to Iran."
But the post-Iowa realignment and growing uncertainty in voter sentiment since then make Mr. Wirthlin think a series of swings could lie ahead.
"I'm expecting a sharp realignment of the Republican vote after New Hampshire. Right now, the contest there is very close. What happens in the debate, in the candidates' campaigning, in events that reflect on a candidate's character, will decide," he says.
Bush pollster Robert Teeter, who polled for Mr. Ford in 1976, says "tremendous press coverage" of early events, the first-look shake-out of secondary candidates, and foreign events, like Iran, only partly explain the to-and-fro in voter support. He, too, says, "It's possible you could have another major reshuffling after New Hampshire," citing "a big Reagan win, or a Baker run-up for second" as factors.
There may be little let-up in the effort to nail down the public in the weeks after New Hampshire, he says, as the campaign roars through a relentless every-Tuesday schedule through March -- with the Massachusetts and Vermont primaries March 4; Florida, Alabama, and Georgia March 11; Illinois March 18; and the Connecticut and New York primaries March 25.
"Once the primaries actually start, every Tuesday for a month you have to put aside long-range strategy," Mr. Teeter says. "It's hand-to-hand combat. You have to redraw your campaign every Wednesday morning."
Kennedy pollster Peter Hart says: "When George Bush suddenly goes from 6 percent to 27 percent in Harris polls nationally, that has to tell you something. Voters are not firm in their opinions. That's why the Kennedy-Nixon case in 1960 was a classic, with relatively little change in voter support from the beginning to November. Now you have wild swings. In 1980, voters don't have a total fix at this stage of the game."
Paul Maslin, with Patrick Caddell's Cambridge Survey Research firm that polls for Mr. Carter and the Democratic National Committee, says "the whole system's changed" since the more stable opinion days of the 1960 campaign.
Opinion shifts are even more "precipitous" now than in 1976, he says. "Bush made the front pages faster, won a greater increase in popular support, than Carter did four years ago after his Iowa win."