Washington — It's been a tough year for America's political pollsters. The reason: public uncertainty about the candidates -- plus widespread unhappiness with all the men running for the country's top job.
"The large majority of Americans, dissatisfied with the performance of government, are searching for someone to lead them out of this morass," says David Gergen, managing editor of Public Opinion, a journal on opinion surveys.
"But they are having a hard time finding any candidate who is wholly credible , who can make a difference," Mr. Gergen says. "It's been extremely difficult to interpret the polls this year because the voters' views have been very tentative.
"The polls may be scientifically accurate, but they are not picking up the intensity of views or lack of intensity. People are wavering back and forth among the candidates."
In 1980 voters preferences, "neither one" or "none of the above" could outpoll the actual candidates, suggests Everett Ladd Jr., director of the Toper Center, a joint University of Connecticut, Yale, and Williams College opinion research program.
"This is the fifth presidential year in a row in which negativism has been a dominant characteristic," Mr. Ladd says. In 1964, Barry Goldwater was not considered the choice of Republican leaders or the rank and file, he recalls. The 1968 Democratic outcome led to the reforms in the party's nominating process.
In a 1972 Yankelovich survey just before the vote, "neither one" outpolled the two major candidates, Richard Nixon and George McGovern. In 1976, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the Carter-Ford choice.
"In 1980, it's reasonable to expect 'neither one' would again outpoll the candidates," Mr. Ladd says. "This was not the way it was in the 1940s and 1950 s."
This year, the week-to-week outcome in the state primaries and caucuses will likely remain difficult for pollsters to call, the analysts say.
Results of today's primary balloting in Wisconsin and Kansas have been particularly tricky to anticipate because these are "open" primaries. In Wisconsin, independents make up the largest voting group and may split unpredictably among Republicans Anderson, Bush, and Reagan, or among Democrats Brown, Carter, and Kennedy.
But it was last week's New York and Connecticut primaries that shook the amateur primary watcher's confidence in the professionals' ability to anticipate results. The polls wrongly picked Mr. Reagan and Mr. Carter to win in Connecticut, and Mr. Carter to win in New York, setting the stage for the double upset that has put new life into the Bush and Kennedy efforts.
"In primaries, more than in a general election, you don't have party affiliation -- the strongest predictor of voting patterns -- to stabilize a survey," Mr. Ladd says. "Turnout in primaries may be 35 or 40 percent, half the rate of general election turnout. So, even more in primaries, those going to the polls may not break the way the population as a whole would.
"Then, too, people genuinely haven't made up their minds for the 1980 race. We found in Connecticut that 45 percent of Republicans and Democrats had not made a choice as late as Thursday before the primary. That's really something when people are as well known as Kennedy, Carter, Bush, and Reagan.
"The possibility of using a ballot in different ways also makes it hard to discern what voters will do. In Connecticut, they used the ballot to protest -- to send a message as well as to send someone to the White House.
"The individual himself may not know what is impelling him before hand. All these factors combine to give maximum bounce and maximum volatility to reading the public's mood."
Softness in President Carter's support has consistently led to stronger-than-expected finishes by Mr. Kennedy -- greater by about 10 points in key primaries so far.
"Voters were not as happy with Carter as the pre-New York votes suggested," Mr. Gergen says. "The rise in public support of the President over Iran and Afghanistan was a bubble. His underlying rate of approval is 30 to 45 percent. He rises and falls so easily with events.
And the unfolding of events -- from the plight of the hostages and the debate over the Olympics to the pattern of inflation -- could thus have a strong impact on Mr. Carter's standing with voters in coming weeks, Mr. Gergen suggests, adding to the fitfulness in polling charts.