Springfield, Ill. — A great imponderable in the presidential race is the extent of the new infusion of "evangelical" voters into the election process -- voters who are bent on electing Ronald Reagan.
For instance, here in Illinois, the Chicago Sun-Times poll now gives President Carter a slight edge. But veteran political observers say this evangelical vote may yet swing this big-electoral-vote state to Mr. Reagan.
Data available here at the state capital show that registration is far up this year among voters who have never voted before, and that the bulk of these new voters are lower- to middle-income whites in southern Illinois, part of the so-called Bible belt.
Observers here say that this increased registration has stemmed, in part, from the activity of the fundamentalist Moral Majority and, in an even larger part, simply from the encouragement of evangelical pastors for their members to vote this year.
In addition, both reporters and pollsters are finding that throughout the Bible belt in the South and border states this evangelical vote is cutting deeply into support that would otherwise go to the presidential candidate from the South.
The current assessment from veteran election watchers here is that the race in Illinois could go either way.
However, with the addition of the new evangelicals plus the less-than-avid support of the Democratic Cook County (Chicago) organization in behalf of Jimmy Carter, the contest could very well tilt to Ronald Reagan by election day.
Further, the less-than-enthusiastic backing of labor may further undercut the Carter margin before the election is over.
The question that observers are asking themselves these days comes down to this: What, indeed, is holding up the Carter candidacy in Illinois?
The answers vary:
Among them, is that Illinois never was "Reagan country," and that this came through clearly four years ago in the victory of Gerald Ford over Reagan in the primaries.
Also, Carter still runs extremely well among the blacks, both in Chicago and other Illinois cities, and that the black vote is big enough in this state to greatly bolster any candidate to which it is given.
Although many blacks are evangelical or with evangelical roots -- they are not a part of the movement which works to elect Mr. Reagan.
All three candidates -- Carter, Reagan, and independent John Anderson are evangelicals. But the political thrust from the white evangelical pulpit asserts that Reagan is the candidate who has been taking the positions that are morally correct, particularly on such issues as abortion, prayer in the schools, and the Equal Rights Amendment.
How big is the evangelical-vote potential?
Some pollsters have said it could amount to 50 percent of the vote. And that estimate includes the black vote.
Four years ago Carter was popular with evangelicals both white and black -- and his victory rested heavily on their support.
The white evangelicals, alone, might represent one-fourth of the potential vote.
But this rests entirely on how many of the white evangelicals are registered -- and actually vote.
What is important here, political experts say, is that the white evangelical voters seem poised to make quite an impact on this election.