Washington — Ronald Reagan is counting on Democratic ticket-splitters to help him win the White House in November. Surveys taken as voters left the polls in Ohio, New Jersey, and California this week showed many Democrats preferred Mr. Reagan over Jimmy Carter. In other words, if voters had been balloting for the general election, Mr. Reagan would have carried these three states.
Richard Wirthlin, Reagan pollster and strategist, sees ticket-splitters helping to offset the Democrats' 2-to-1 registration advantage over the GOP in Novem ber. The latest Gallup survey on party identification showed 46 percent of American voters consider themselves Democrats, 22 percent Republican, and 32 percent independent.
Ticket-splitting -- voting for a candidate for president from one party and lesser offices from another -- has risen steadily from 3 percent in 1900 to 42 percent in 1972.
Mr. Wirthlin divides the voting public into seven groups: conservative Republicans 21 percent; moderate-liberal Republicans 7 percent; conservative ticket- splitters 11 percent; moderate-liberal ticket- splitters 13 percent; conservative Democrats 15 percent; liberal Democrats 22 percent; and other non-GOP voters, such as blacks, 12 percent. (The rounded-off total equals 101 percent.)
"The Reagan value system pulls in more blue-collar Democrats than other Republicans have in the past," Mr. Wirthlin says of his candidate's appeal across party lines. "He's also an able communicator to that group."
"His personality traits appeal to the voting center, where conventional wisdom says the election is carried," Mr. Wirthlin adds. "He's viewed as an implementer, a strong leader -- moral, with high integrity. He's also seen as more compassionate than he was in 1976, and as more effective than Carter."
Outside experts, reviewing Mr. Wirthlin's analysis of the electorate, still see a tough, close contest ahead for the former California governor.
"By his own numbers, Reagan is starting out with a solid third of the voters against him -- the non-GOP and liberal Democrats," says Morris Fiorina, California Institute of Technology political scientist. "He would also lose a chunk of conservative Democrats on traditional, regional grounds."
Mr. Wirthlin says the Reagan appeal to the voting center is strengthened by this group's greater openness to conservative ideas.
However, other opinion experts see less of a conservative trend, with the public sending "mixed" signals -- often identifying itself as "conservative" while favoring liberal solutions.
"I wouldn't use any such liberal, conservative categories," says Everett Ladd Jr., director the University of Connecticut's Opinion Research Center. "People do fit into categories by party identification, ethnic background, and positions on issues, that move or don't move them to support, candidates. But patterns are mixed today, not liberal or conservative."
An individual's stance on abortion bears "zero correlation" to how he might vote on other liberal/conservative issues, such as gun control or the death penalty, Mr. Ladd says.
"Reagan's prospects lie more than any place else among traditional Republicans,' Mr. Ladd explains. "But, as parties get weaker, it is easier to draw from other camps. We don't know how he will draw from those unhappy with Carter, those angry over specific issues, or those who think it's time for a change."
Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center, also warns against drawing too fine a numerical line in dividing voters.
"For the presidency, half the time it's close, half the time it's onesided," Mr. Scammon adds. "It was onesided twice for Ike [Dwight D. Eisenhower], once for [Lyndon] Johnson, once, in '72, for [Richard] Nixon. It's onesided when you have a powerful figure like Eisenhower or when a party goes crazy, like the Republicans in '64 or the Democrats in '72."