Washington — It would be ironic, and serious, if the long, flat plane of the 1980 campaign were shaken by emotional events like a debate miscue or hostage return at the last hour, political historians say.
"In 1980, people are having such a hard time choosing between candidates -- with a decreasing difference between candidates as they head toward the center," says James MacGregor Burns of Williams College.
"It would be a very serious situation for a passing emotional issue to envelope the campaign at its critical stage."
"I see no popular recognition of a national agenda in this campaign," Mr. Burns says. "For the outcome to hang on a hostage return or someone flubbing a debate would mean an end to the election without a resolution of fundamental political questions."
So far, the campaign itself has apparently shifted public perceptions of the candidates only slightly if at all. For example, CBS-New York Times surveys showed 47 percent of the public in early September thought Carter had "a vision about where he wants to lead the country" and 48 percent think so in late October. The public's rating of Reagan's leadership vision -- 67 percent favorable -- has stayed virtually the same. The candidates' ratings on their grasp of complex leadership issues has also held steady through the fall campaign, at about 50 percent for Reagan, 70 percent for the President.
"From the grass roots here in Massachusetts," Mr. Burns says, "there is no election. There are no bumper stickers, no discussion. It would be a terrible irony if some big emotional or personal development, coming at the end of an election that is absolutely flat, determined the outcome. This is the price we pay for a political system where we don't have creative conflict between two candidates."
Neither of the major candidates has made a successful appeal to a national constituency on a substantive issue, says Michael Rogin, University of California, Berkeley, political scientist.
"The possible flukiness of outcome is related to the lack of any serious campaign," Mr. Rogin says. "Neither has been able to get anything going. That leaves it up to chance."
The only serious constituency to develop has been women's opposition to Reagan, on the war and peace and women's issues, Mr. Rogin says. "War and peace makes sense to me -- that's part of traditional American politics. If it's abortion and equal rights, it would be remarkable. I would be struck by women's contribution to a Reagan defeat."
"Reagan is proposing an alternative program to Carter's," Mr. Rogin says, "but it doesn't come across that way. People are doing more discounting of election promises. They gave Carter the benefit of the doubt in '76. They trusted him. They don't want to be seduced and abandoned again."
Given the fragmentation of the American electorate and decline of the political parties in recent years, the debate could be useful, maintains Stephen Wayne, George Washington university presidentcy expert.
"The personality of the president and his capacity for leadership is more important than ever because the system is more pluralistic, more difficult to lead," says Mr. Wayne. "Therefore leadership skills are more important. The debate will not be extraneous in the sense that it affects perceptions of presidential capability."
President Carter has focused the campaign on "who would be the more capable candidate," not on whether he "had done a good job," Mr. Wayne says. "He has won in terms of setting the election in his own terms."
The hostage issue has in effect imprisoned both candidates, according to Mr. Wayne. "Carter is hostage to the hostage question," he says. "If the hostages don't come out before the election, now that the issue is raised, he will lose on the issue.
"Reagan is imprisoned by the issue also. He can't say anything, can't prevent it from being brought up. Yet it could cost him the election if they come out. Carter would go on TV and say, 'We did nothing wrong.We were peaceable, forceful. You get things done by patience and fortitude' -- an implied criticism of Reagan."
Mr. Wayne also concludes that the late held debate and the hostage issue will affect views of the candidates but not resolve questions of national policy.
"If Carter gains as a consequence of the hostages and debate, Democrats will fell better about their candidate and party and vote for him," Mr. Wayne says. "If Reagan gains, Democrats can vote for him without feeling guilty."
Harvard political historian Frank Freidel sees precedents for the lack of enthusiasm for major candidates, and for rivals to compete as peace candidates.
"In 1948, there was a general lack of enthusiasm for Dewey, Truman, and even Wallace -- but no last-minute event that changed things," Mr. Freidel says. Dewey was not seen likely to innervate strongly. Truman, like Carter, was not perceived as ann achiever.
"In 1940, both Wendell Willkie and FDR campaigned on how they would keep the US out of war," Mr. Freidel says. "The Suez crisis in 1956, which wasn't a close election, shot up Eisenhower's majority by five or six points."
The 1980 campaign as waged has not quite squared with the issues, Mr. Freidel suggests:
"We have some very real issues this year. More newspapers in the country have devoted more space to the issues than I can remember. The isues are the end of cheap energy, plus inflation and unemployment.
"My own feeling is that the American public would like to return to the '50s on domestic policy. But they don't want a return of the cold war."
Any impact from the hostage or debate episodes must work against a fixedness in public views about Reagan and Carter -- and reservations about voting for them -- says Michael Barone, a Democratic pollster.
"It's not that voters are ditherers," Mr. Barone says. "When you have a President under scrutiny for four years, and a challenger in public view 14, 15, 16 years, it's not likely impressions will change quickly."