US nominating process chaotic -- but successful?

Will the 1980 campaign vindicate the much-critized US presidential primary system? Some political experts say it will, and they see the Feb. 26 New Hampshire vote -- the first real primary this year -- as a major case in point.

Many forces are coming together to give the New Hampshire presidential primary much of its historic importance in 1980: the narrow six-point Kennedy loss to Jimmy Carter in Maine, the near-even Bush- Reagan race in New England, the uncertain impact from dramatic issues like the Olympics, the draft, and hostages

The intensive criss-crossing of candidates and saturation coverage by media before the New Hampshire vote seem to be justified, given the intensity of this year's contest, say the experts, despite the fact that the primary decides barely one-half of 1 percent of the delegates to the summer conventions. (The Minnesota Democratic caucuses, held the same day, will choose four times as many delegates.)

New Hampshire has done well in the past as bellwether of national opinion. In 1976, to test the point, the Roper organization took a national poll the same time as the New Hamsphire primary. The result: The national ratings of Republicans Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan were within four points of their New Hampshire tallies; Democrat Jimmy Carter's winning 28 percent in the Granite State exactly matched his national rating.

This is not to say, pollsters caution, that New Hampshire will be "decisive" in 1980. If anything, it now appears likely to help tighten and prolong the race in both parties.Federal funds for nomination campaigns, first available in the 1976 contests, should help keep candidates going, their strategists say. And the volatility of voter opinion seen so far makes the experts shy of predicting the course ahead.

The swings in opinion -- for instance, a rise of 21 points for George Bush and decline of 12 points for Mr. Reagan in just 12 days after the Iowa caucuses in January -- appears to be justifying in 1980 the often-criticized US nomination system, stretched as it is over five months in a crazy-quilt pattern of states. Some foreign issues may be resolved, and domestic issues like the economy and energy may become better focused, by the time the final 20 percent of delegates are decided on the last day of primaries, June 3. By then, the decisive power will have shifted to the West Coast, with California cashing in 9 percent of the total delegates.

But the New Hampshire primary will help settle discrepancies in poll standings. "Historically, the Gallup poll has shown its greatest one-month change in presidential candidate preferences just before and after the New Hampshire primary," comments Burns Roper in the upcoming February/March Public Opinion magazine. On the Republican side, in surveys taken the same time, Gallup has Reagan ahead of Bush by 47 to 33 percent nationally, while the Harris poll has Reagan ahead 38 to 30. Among Democrats, Carter leads Kennedy by 60 to 28, with 5 percent for California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., in the latest Harris survey of Democratic voters.

"Kennedy isn't all that weak," says I.A. Lewis, director of the Los Angeles Times's national polling operation. Mr. Lewis says this while acknowledging that his own New Hampshire poll, taken the same time as the others as February started, shows Senator Kennedy trailing by a similar 2-to-1 margin: Carter 51 percent, Kennedy 27 percent, and Brown 7.

"I'm reluctant to predict what will happen," Mr. Lewis says. "But, tentatively, I still feel the odds are Kennedy to win. The question is whether Kennedy can hang on long enough to turn attention around to the economy and energy, issues where Carter is weak.

"People keep looking at [poll] numbers. But Kennedy's time is coming if he can hold on long enough. His biggest mistake was challenging Carter on foreign issues. Kennedy has been on the dovish side for a long time, and the public isn't dovish right now."

Mr. Lewis sees latent strength for Mr. Kennedy in New Hampshire that may not have appeared in recent samplings. In the first New Hampshire poll, taken by the Los Angeles Times more than a year ago in December, 1978, the senator ran stronger in New Hampshire than nationally. At that time -- before PResident Carter's unprecedented sag and surge in the polls -- Senator Kennedy drew 57 percent of New Hampshire Democratic support for the nomination, 42 percent nationally; Mr. Carter 21 percent in New Hampshire and 34 percent nationally, and Governor Brown 12 percent in New Hampshire and 15 percent nationally.

Mr. Lewis is "enthusiastic" over New Hampshire's position for the 1980 race. "That New Hampshire's delegate count is so small is a protection," he says. "It means any distortion from hoopla is having only a small effect on the convention.

"The entire nomination course is an educational process, so it almost doesn't matter where it is. If it began in California, everybody would complain about its disproportionate impact.

"People complain that only a handful decide who will be president. But millions of people participate. When you add the press, campaign contributors, campaign workers, and voters, you have a complicated process that shakes out a lot" of peripheral candidates.

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