What are likely to be the election issues and trends after the conventions? Inflation will certainly be one of them since there is no prospect of lowered prices. unemployment will be another. The popularity of the President, if nominated, could conceivably be at a low level, and there is speculation that there may be a great deal of voter apathy, especially among Democrats. On top of all this is the issue of our international relations. For each of these questions there are some unorthodox observations to be made.
The kind of inflation we are witnessing, the secretary of the treasury tells us, is beyond anything experienced in recent decades. This is not quite the case. After price controls were lifted in 1946, prices jumped and we elected a one-term Republican Congress. By 1948 consumer prices had advanced 37 percent over what they were in 1944-45. In spite of that Truman was elected in 1948, having mounted a vigorous campaign and an attack on that "no good" Republican Congress.
The record of unemployment is another election factor not clearly understood historically.
What is not generally known is that in every election year since 1948 the unemployment rate actually averaged lowerm than in the preceding year, lower by 0 .1 percent in 1948, by 0.2 percent in 1952, by 0.3 percent in 1956, unchanged in 1960, lower again by 0.5 percent in 1964, by 0.2 percent in 1968, by 0.3 percent in 1972, and by 0.8 percent in 1976.
It has been suggested that voter interest in the coming election may show a decline, continuing a downtrend. This is a particularly unwarranted reading of the facts. It is pointed out by columnists and other commentators that in the last two elections only 54 or 55 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in 1972 and 1976 compared with about 63 percent in the 1960s, and that this represents a long-time downtrend in voter interest.
The reason for the lowered participation in the last two elections is nothing more than the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18, thus adding 12 million or more to the potential number of voters. But most of these young potential voters do not participate at the usual rate of about 63 percent for those 21 and over.
It is only by including the large block of nonvoting youngsters that the rate of participation was lower in 1976 and 1972. We can thus reasonably dismiss the notion that voter apathy will prevail this year.
What about the presidential popularity rating which showed a Carter decline during 1977 and 1978 and most of 1979 and a market recovery during the early months of the hostage episode in Iran? With no success so far in freeing the hostages Carter's popularity rating has now shown a decline. This fact, however , does not necessarily bear on the outcome of the coming election.
It is necessary to keep in mind that when pollsters report a declining popularity rating they may at the same time report that Carter is preferred over the possible Republican candidates. For an historical experience that we might conceivably see repeated this year, note that Truman's popularity plummeted in 1945-1946, recovered some in 1947, but remained at a low level during the preconvention months of 1948. These popularity ratings, followed by Truman's nomination and election, clearly indicate that "popularity" is a very loose concept compared with actual candidate preference expressed in the voting booth.
As for foreign affairs in relation to possible election results, usually it is mostly domestic issues that sway voters. In the past several elections international problems have been looked upon as bipartisan.
This year the US faces problems in the Middle East, Russia's move into Afghanistan, the threat to overseas oil supply, and Soviet objectives in Europe. In a general sense we are back to where we were in 1948, when Truman was the first to recognize the new state of Israel, when we were involved in setting up NATO as a guard against Soviet expansionism into Western Europe, and when we were concerned over possible moves by Russia in the Persian Gulf, endangering our relation with the Middle East and the oil supply.
Could the similar international concerns today also play only a minor part in this year's election?