Prineville, Ore. — America, are you listening? Crook County is leaning toward Ronald Reagan in November. Not that Americans would take their lead from this isolated county, where more cattle than registered voters live in the sagebrush-and-lava landscape, where there's not a single movie theater, where hunting and rockhounding upstage television, and where there is not a minority population to speak of. Maybe it's just that the mood of Americans is mirrored in Crook County.
Crook County has a reputation for being ''right'' when it comes to voting for president - 100 percent right.
Perhaps pollsters will ignore that fact and politicians continue to bypass the county. But its reputation as a national bellwether dates back to its incorporation in 1882. Since then, every president from Grover Cleveland to Ronald Reagan has carried Crook County. Locals turned down William Jennings Bryan three times and went for Richard M. Nixon twice.
So when comparing its past record with what's to come in November, is anyone going to call Crook County a statistical aberration? Maybe. But the county's credibility has to rank fairly high when not even Gallup has the longevity or accuracy that Crook County boasts.
Once a handful of US counties claimed a similar reputation for picking winners. But when Laramie County, Wyo., went for Gerald Ford in 1976, only Crook County and Palo Alto County in Iowa were left.
Palo Alto, another rural county, incorporated in 1848, has a longer but no less accurate record than Crook County's. A Life magazine poll last December of 403 registered voters in Palo Alto showed 53 percent picking Walter Mondale over 37 percent for Reagan. Unless either county has changed its stand, there will be at least one less county boasting bellwether status come Nov. 7.
At the geographic center of Oregon, and perhaps the center of political taste in the United States, Crook County looks to be leaning toward Reagan, if an informal Monitor poll here is any indication. But the hard data won't be in until Crook County High School does its quadrennial survey of its 800 students - the only official, and so far always accurate, poll done in the county.
Nationally, Democrats outnumber other voters and the numbers break down the same in Crook County, explains Jim Smith. Mr. Smith is publisher of the Central Oregonian, a newspaper published in Prineville, the county seat. ''Among the ethnic and single-issue voters nationally, somewhere in there is a bedrock of voters, and the people of Crook County are representative of that. The advantage of Crook County is it doesn't have a single-issue voting population (to skew its vote),'' says Smith, a transplanted Texan who blends in well here with his cowboy boots and tooled leather belt.
The community's population is stable, with no large influx and no outmigration, he says. It is relatively isolated. ''Trendy things rarely get here. ... If it's a worthwhile trend it gets here maybe a year later,'' he says. Thus, he reasons, the county is a preserve of values that are at the core of American beliefs.
''We're more aware of pocketbook issues than the rest of the country,'' says Smith. He says the lumber industry once provided one-third of the jobs among the county's 13,000 residents, 8,000 of which live within two miles of the county courthouse in Prineville. ''Timber is the first to go down and the last to come up (in a recession), and people here are very sensitive to cyclical changes of the economy. The economy is far better here than prior to Reagan, when unemployment was 25 percent (at times). We hit 10 or 11 (percent) this summer, and that's a 50 percent reduction in unemployment,'' he explains. Consequently, ''I don't see a great groundswell of activity for change.''
Smith admits that, like the majority of Oregonians, who are registered Democrat but nearly always vote Republican for president, he is partial to Reagan. But he says he never endorses a presidential candidate in print. ''These people have been voting right since the county was created and it'd be kind of arrogant of me to decide I know how to tell them to vote,'' he explains.
Asked about the importance of Crook County's bellwether status, Smith says that while he is stumped about its meaning, he does suspect it's ''great for tourism.'' The phenomenon brings intensive media attention every four years. Smith jokes about the time in 1980 when a West German television network was here to do a story about the county and NBC had a crew doing a story about the West Germans doing the Crook County story. To top it all off, Smith had his own staff doing a story about the West Germans and NBC.
The mayor of Prineville, David Asher, is another Democrat who sees a Crook County victory for Reagan. ''If you had an election today, Reagan would carry Prineville 3 to 1,'' he estimates.
Why? Geraldine Ferraro isn't helping matters for the Democrats, says Mayor Asher. ''Don't get me wrong, some of my most staunch supporters are members of women's lib. But I don't believe in radical women's lib like Geraldine Ferraro, '' he says, adding that most people he knows are fearful of the ''radical agitators she's associating with.''
Asked what is radical about Ms. Ferraro, he says, ''it's that uneccessary abortion they're supporting. We don't approve of it.''
Joe Stahancyk, a retired potato and hay farmer, is a Democrat. His wife, Bertie, is a Republican; both are voting for Reagan. Mr. Stahancyk, a tan, lanky man who can still speak the Polish his immigrant father spoke, lives in the northwestern corner of the county in a spacious new ranch house built largely with local timber. ''I liked it when Reagan hung on and said it's gonna get better instead of giving in to the pressure against him to let go of his (economic) program,'' he says.
The lumber industry here is not as embittered as might be expected toward the Reagan administration.
''The unemployed are not as distressed here as in a large city. ... No one's starving to death here,'' explains Stuart Shelk Sr., a partner in the Ochoco Lumber Company and a 46-year Crook County resident. The small-town atmosphere is supportive of those who are down and out, he says. ''We have a surprising number of men in the Republican Party working in the mill, even though the normal working man is usually a Democrat. We have a lot of conservative Democrats, too, '' he explains.
Jeanie Storms, a job developer with a local employment contract to the county , says she's voting for Reagan, and reports that a sizable number of the unemployed lumber workers - whose jobs come and go with interest rates - seem still to side with the President.
But in Post, Ore. (pop. 5), a Crook County watering hole for ranch hands and lumber workers, there is some Democratic support. ''I'm behind Mondale all the way,'' emphatically declares Bonnie Orem, who works behind the counter of the single building in Post, a combination gas station, post office, bar, and grocery store which carries Jughead comics, worms, and ice. Will she vote for him? ''No, I never vote,'' she says.