Washington — It was 1958. Lyndon B. Johnson, dreaming of the White House, was down on his Texas ranch, plotting political strategy. Using two maps of the United States, Senator Johnson had colored those states carried by Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1952 and '56 elections. Johnson didn't like what he saw.
Turning to one of his advisers, Horace W. Busby, Johnson grumbled: "We sure got to watch it, or those fellas [the Republicans] are going to get a lock on the Electoral College."
Mr. Busby has never forgotten that meeting with LBJ, with whom he was closely associated for 25 years. Busby says that in the current election, the Republican "lock" on the presidency may be about to snap shut for years to come.
The latest political polls tell only part of the story. This week, for example, four polls have shown President Reagan ahead nationwide by varying -- but always wide -- margins: 13 points in the Louis Harris poll, 15 percent in Gallup, 16 points in the ABC/Washington Post poll, and 22 points in USA Today.
What the polls don't say is that it is in the Electoral College that the Republican lead is most impressive. A number of political analysts, including some prominent Democrats, are beginning to talk about a possible electoral landslide in 1984.
Furthermore, some analysts are now suggesting that GOP domination of the Electoral College could last for years to come.
In the Electoral College, where a president is actually chosen, the voting is by states. The GOP has been gradually tightening its grip there for 30 years. The GOP hold on the Western states is well known. Most Western states vote for the GOP year after year in presidential races. But now the Republicans are extending their reach into areas that once formed the Democratic base.
In the past eight elections, the GOP has carried 29 states at least six times , or 75 percent of the time. That means, under Busby's definition, that those 29 states are already in the GOP "lock"; the Democrats carry none of those states unless there is a Republican disaster, such as Watergate. Those 29 Republican-leaning states contain 289 electoral votes, or 19 more than the 270 needed to elect a president. It's an automatic GOP advantage.
One thing that has escaped general notice is that a number of states in the Republican "lock" are in the South and along the East Coast. The trend began with Dwight Eisenhower.
Analysts say several demographic changes are pushing the country toward the GOP in presidential elections. For example, the population is growing most rapidly in the Sunbelt, that band of states from Florida to Arizona, which is traditionally more conservative.
Even more important, the so-called baby boomers, who have come of age in recent years, are far more conservative than they were in the 1960s and early ' 70s.
Charles F. Rund, director of survey research for the Reagan-Bush campaign, observes that some baby boomers, now aged 17 to 45, are "up in the air" politically. Either party could grab them. The trend, however, is for this age group to gravitate toward the GOP. Busby notes that surveys among very young, first-time voters are running as much as 4 or 5 to 1 in favor of the GOP.
Mr. Rund says this could be a dramatic development that could shape elections far into the future. "Until 2030, these younger voters will dominate the political scene," Rund suggests.
The electorate, says Busby, is "undergoing unprecedented change." Voters 45 to 75 years of age total 70 million in the United States. Those under 45 this year will reach 93 million -- a massive tide of voters that Busby says could "batter" the Democrats.
Mondale pollster Peter Hart warns that the battle for the baby boomers shouldn't be conceded in favor of the Republicans so quickly. But he admits the GOP is ahead.
"We are in a transitional election," he says. "The realignment will clearly take place when the baby boomers decide in one direction or another to support a given party. We have not seen a uniformity of opinion."
One argument that gives Mr. Hart and other Democrats hope is that there is what Hart calls a "fault line" running through the baby boom generation on economic, foreign policy, and social issues.
Younger voters clearly line up with the Republicans on economic concerns. They like lower taxes, free enterprise, and a reduced for government.
But those same voters appear to have less in common with Republicans on foreign policy (war-peace) and social (school prayer, abortion) issues.
Strategists like Hart are looking for ways to drive a wedge between Republicans and their young supporters. This is one reason, from a political standpoint, that Walter Mondale has hammered so hard on the arms control issue and on relations with the Soviets. He thinks young voters are with him on this. It is also one factor that gives the Democrats the courage to maintain their opposition to Roman Catholic leaders and Protestant spokesmen such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell on subjects like abortion and tuition tax credits for parochial and private schools.Millions of young voters apparently agree with the Mondale positions.
One Democratic Party insider noted that the relatively brief political experience of some young voters could push them toward the GOP. Many first-time voters this year will have a clear memory of only two presidents -- Jimmy Carter for the Democrats, Ronald Reagan for the GOP. Democrats are afraid the comparison clearly favors Reagan.
Democrats also worry that the young generation of voters has never known a time, like the Great Depression, or the Great Society years, when government was a positive force. To young voters, most of whom have never been in serious need of help, less government is better government. And that view clearly reflects the Reagan theme.