Harrisburg, Pa. — Although the region's first primary is May 18, in Pennsylvania, some people in the Middle Atlantic states will have already voted - after a fashion.
This is one of the areas Ronald Reagan was referring to when he said Americans could ''vote with their feet.'' He meant that the unemployed or those dissatisfied with their economic prospects might find brighter horizons elsewhere, such as in the Sunbelt.
Indeed, some have departed, leaving the region's politicians to grapple with this population erosion and the concurrent economic slump. Both could have a significant impact on the electoral races that are shaping up.
The 1980 US Census shows that New York lost population over the past decade, while Pennsylvania experienced no growth. New Jersey gained just 2.7 percent, far below the national average (11.4 percent). Maryland also gained slightly, but most of that increase came in the early 1970s.
Only the populations of West Virginia and Delaware, included in this survey but not always considered parts of the Middle Atlantic region, grew significantly in the '70s. West Virginia matched the national average because of a surge near the end of the decade, which analysts attribute mainly to an anticipated boom in coal production. Small Delaware, regarded by some as a Sunbelt state, grew at 8.6 percent.
Among them, the six states in this survey lose eight congressional seats this year as the result of decreases in population. Their representatives in Congress argue that there is another loss, too--of federal aid and services in proportion to the amount of tax money the region sends to Washington.
Meanwhile, the region's unemployment is smoldering as a potential campaign issue.
Mr. Reagan scored well in these states in 1980, losing only West Virginia and Maryland and sweeping two new Republican US senators and 13 new Republican congressmen into office with him. But the regional economy was in better shape then than it is now.
The latest unemployment averages, as measured by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, continue relatively high. West Virginia, at 12.4 percent, and Pennsylvania, at 11 percent, lead the way. Unemployment in New York is the lowest in the region: 9 percent.
Should the voters turn on the GOP this time because of Reaganomics, the consequences could be serious for the party. One Republican governor and two US senators in the region are candidates for reelection, not to mention numerous veteran congressmen and women. Only a year ago, elements of the Republican right were targeting the Middle Atlantic states for impressive new gains, especially the US Senate seats held by Democrats Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland and Daniel P. Moynihan of New York.
Now, those efforts appear to be backfiring.
A state-by-state assessment of the Middle Atlantic region follows: New York
Probably the most complex political races anywhere in the region are those in New York. Gov. Hugh Carey (D), who could have succeeded himself, decided not to run for reelection, and the scramble to succeed him is on.
The best-known Democratic candidates are Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo and New York Mayor Edward Koch. The mayor is the more colorful personality of the two, but he is still trying to defend unflattering references to suburban and rural life he made in a national magazine interview last winter. Nearly everything outside metropolitan New York City is known as ''upstate,'' and Mr. Koch's remarks have not amused many people there. Mr. Cuomo, on the other hand, has acquired considerable visibility upstate, particularly in rural areas, and has taken care to put distance between himself and the troubled administration of Governor Carey.
The Republican field is crowded. Millionaire businessman Lewis Lehrman has become the leading candidate now that state Comptroller Edward Regan has left the race. Mr. Lehrman already has spent in excess of $1.2 million in campaign funds, mostly on television commercials to build name recognition. But analysts in the state do not discount the candidacy of former US attorney Paul Curran, who waited until mid-April to enter the race. Mr. Curran is expected to stress his law-enforcement background in a state that is crime-wary. Former state GOP chairman Richard Rosenbaum and state House minority leader James Emery also are in the running.
Mr. Moynihan, proclaiming that he is the ''most approved-of public figure'' in the state, announced his candidacy for reelection to the Senate late last month. He has no serious Democratic opposition for the Sept. 14 primary. Republican prospects for unseating him were dealt a major blow in March when former congressman Bruce Caputo, the leading candidate, withdrew from the race. Mr. Caputo, whose campaign was off to a fast start, admitted misrepresenting his military service during the Vietnam war. Perhaps the best-known of those Republicans who are trying to pick up where Caputo left off are former US attorney Whitney North Seymour Jr. and US Reps. Hamilton Fish Jr. and Gregory Carman.
New York loses five seats in the US House of Representatives. Its redistricting plan is the subject of considerable controversy, with a federal court now involved in resolving the issue. New Jersey
Even before former US Sen. Harrison Williams Jr. (D) resigned his office in the wake of the Abscam scandal, the New Jersey Senate race was in turmoil. And the situation has not been eased by the appointment of stockbroker Nicholas Brady (R) to fill the unexpired portion of Mr. Williams's term. Senator Brady already has served notice he will not seek election in his own right.
So voters in the June 8 primary must choose from among a crowded field of candidates for the seat that Williams held for 24 years. The leading Democratic contenders are Barbara Sigmund, Howard Rosen, Frank Lautenberg, Joseph LeFante, and Andrew Maguire. Mrs. Sigmund is the daughter of US Rep. Lindy Boggs (D) of Louisiana, who gained fame by succeeding her husband in Congress after he was killed in an Alaska plane crash. Mr. Rosen is a liberal attorney who has built visibility - in the mode of certain other politicians - by traveling the state and working briefly at blue-collar jobs. Mr. Lautenberg, a strong backer of former Democratic governor Brendan Byrne, already has spent $300,000 on television commercials to bring his name before the public. Mr. LeFante and Mr. Maguire are former US representatives.
US Rep. Millicent Fenwick is considered the leading GOP candidate by seasoned political observers. Mrs. Fenwick, while a political moderate, already has won the endorsement of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. Her chief rival is Jeffrey Bell, a conservative in the Reagan mold, who lost to US Sen. Bill Bradley (D) in 1980.
New Jersey loses one House seat, and its redistricting plan - signed by Governor Byrne two hours before he turned the office over to Republican successor Thomas Kean in January - is being contested in the US Supreme Court by the state GOP. The case, however, is not likely to be taken up until fall. Pennsylvania
The May 18 primary is of little significance here, since no candidate for statewide office from either major party has more than nominal opposition. But, in the words of one veteran political observer here, the gubernatorial race now looks like the ultimate test of Reaganomics.
Just 72 days after taking office, Gov. Richard Thornburgh (R) built a reputation for calm management of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant emergency. He won election on an anti-corruption theme and has kept state government clean in his first term, observers say. He also has avoided tax increases and trimmed the state payroll.
If the Pennsylvania economy wasn't in a slump, there might be little doubt of the governor's reelection prospects. But he has aligned himself closely with President Reagan's fiscal policies.
Hoping to cash in on public dissatisfaction with the state economy is US Rep. Allen E. Ertel (D), who agreed to make the race when better-known personalities in his party would not. Late last month he picked up the vital endorsement of the state AFL-CIO, but he is still struggling to build name recognition and raise campaign funds. The congressman's task may be unenviable, but there is one curiousity of history that could work in his favor. Not since 1932 has Pennsylvania elected a governor from the same party as the sitting President.
US Sen. John Heinz (R), unlike Thornburgh, seems to be putting as much distance as possible between himself and Reagan. For a Republican, he is popular with organized labor and already has collected the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO. That factor alone damages the prospects of his chief Democratic opponent for the Senate, Cyril Wecht.
Mr. Wecht comes from Pittsburgh, where he is widely known. But so does Senator Heinz, who has the added advantage of statewide recognition.
The state loses two congressional seats to redistricting. Maryland
The stage in the Maryland political arena is mostly empty at this point, since the candidates' filing deadline isn't until July 6 for the Sept. 14 primary. But in the race for governor, at least, the eventual winner may well be named Harry. Reason: Harry Hughes (D), the incumbent, almost certainly will seek reelection. Should he falter or ultimately decide not to run, however, his likely opponents for the Democratic nomination are state Sen. Harry McGuirk of Baltimore and Ocean City Mayor Harry Kelley.
The lone Republican in the race to date is Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Pascal, who has been portraying himself as a law-and-order candidate. There may be some political mileage for Mr. Pascal in this issue, since juvenile crime has been on the rise in Baltimore and there have been several escapes from prisons in the state in the last year. Overcrowding is blamed as a key cause.
Senator Sarbanes (D), who is seeking reelection, was an early target of the Republican right. NCPAC (the National Conservative Political Action Committee) has poured more than $400,000 for television commercials assailing the senator's liberal voting record. That strategy appears to be backfiring, however, and Sarbanes's prospects in this heavily Democratic state are considered better than ever. The leading Republican candidate is former congressman and gubernatorial candidate Lawrence J. Hogan.
Most of the attention to congressional races is focused on the anticipated contest between US Rep. Roy Dyson (D) and the man who preceeded him in the office, Robert Bauman (R). Mr. Bauman, defending himself on morality questions, lost his seat to congressman Dyson in 1980 by 6,600 votes in a conservative rural district. Delaware
The ''Roth'' of the Kemp-Roth tax cut, which stands at the center of President Reagan's economic program, is Delaware's senior US senator. And Republican William V. Roth Jr. is a candidate for reelection. But Delaware has a large blue-collar labor force, unemployment in the state is at 10.1 percent, and Democrats have a voter-registration edge.
Not surprisingly, Senator Roth's Democratic opponent, real estate developer David Levinson, is campaigning hard on economic issues. He also enjoys the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO and apparently is well-financed.
Neither candidate is likely to have any opposition in the Sept. 11 primary.
The state's only congressman, Thomas Evans Jr. (R), is seeking reelection. However, he is faced with the prospect of defending himself on morality questions. Democrat Robert Burnham appears to be his most formidable opponent thus far. West Virginia
Now that the Republican Party controls the US Senate, Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia is finding out how the other half lives. Mr. Byrd has been in the Senate for 24 years - five of them as majority leader. Not only has he had to hand over the position to Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee, but he also finds himself an early and frequent target of NCPAC. The right-wing group hopes to topple him on grounds that, despite his penchant for playing the fiddle for campaign audiences, he is no longer in tune with voters in the state.
Byrd has no Democratic opposition for renomination in the June 1 primary. But in Congressman Cleve Benedict he faces perhaps his most formidable--and best-financed--Republican opponent to date in the general election. Mr. Benedict and NCPAC, however, have chosen to personalize the campaign against Byrd, and there are signs that the strategy is backfiring. The Benedict campaign has drawn considerable editorial criticism, and some political observers say the strategy was risky in the first place because the state has more registered Democrats than Republicans.
These observers also suggest that in running for the Senate Benedict may be all but abandoning his newly won House seat to Democrat Harley Staggers Jr., son of the man who represented his district in Congress for 32 years.