Why Democratic leaders such as John White are spreading the word that John Anderson as a third-party candidate could defeat Jimmy Carter is most baffling. One theory is that top-level Carter strategists have applied their pencils to how an Anderson third-party effort would affect a Carter-Reagan race and, after weighing the pros and cons, have concluded that the Illinois congressman would really serve to help re-elect the President.
Thus, this theory goes, these strategists, including Jordan, Rafshoon, Caddell, Strauss, and White, have come up with the "cute" idea of promoting an Anderson candidacy which they want by underscoring their fears and not their hopes about it.
Could it be that it's a lot like a wily Br'er Rabbit pleading not to be thrown into the briar patch -- knowing that he could escape easily if his captor complied?
Oh, yes, the case for Anderson destroying Carter is a compelling one.
Mr. White, at breakfast the other morning, had handouts which -- if you agreed with the Democratic chairman's reasoning -- showed that Anderson would take enough votes away from Carter in 10 states to shift a close election to Reagan.
Mr. White said that third-party candidate Eugene McCarthy "lost" Carter four of these states -- Iowa, Maine, Oregon, and Oklahoma -- to Gerald Ford in 1976.
As of now a close Carter-Reagan contest is being projected. A Newsweek poll shows Carter is just one percentage point ahead.
So the stage is set for Mr. Anderson to reshape the results next November. Up to a few days ago Mr. Anderson persisted in saying he could win the GOP nomination and, hence, had no interest in becoming a third-party candidate. But now the Illinois congressman has told reporters that he just might take the third-party route. And sources close to the candidate say he is looking hard now at the steps he must take if he goes in the direction.
Anderson has in fact scored heavily among independents and Democrats during the primaries. It's been the crossover vote that has made his candidacy look good thus far.
Also, many traditional Democratic voters, particularly Jewish Americans, doubtless would welcome an opportunity to vote for Anderson instead of Carter next fall.
Indeed, Anderson would be a natural recipient of votes from the liberal segment of the Democratic Party -- those who are convinced that Carter is moving too far to the right. So the Carter fears for the fall are not unfounded should Anderson make a three-man race.
But this reporter's assessment leads to another conclusion: that, on balance, Anderson would hurt Reagan more than he would Carter, and enough so as to help Carter win.
McCarthy did damage Carter four years ago. In fact, had he been allowed to enter the New York election, he doubtless would have turned that state and the final results in Mr. Ford's favor.
But McCarthy was a Democrat. And, without engaging in all kinds of mental gymnastics about who voted for whom, there is this to be said about voters: They tend to vote for candidates of their party in a presidential election. Thus, it was much easier for a Democrat to vote for McCarthy last time than it will be for him to vote for a Republican like Anderson.
Certainly there will be a lot of talk about Democratic voter defection.But the same Democrat who may have voted for Anderson in a primary will find it difficult to vote for him in the fall.Some will say: "Anderson doesn't have a chance. So, since I want my vote to count, I'll vote for Carter." Others will reason: "I don't like Carter much. But I like him better than Reagan. And I won't want to vote for Anderson and help Reagan be elected." But more than anything else those who have traditionally voted Democratic since FDR just won't be able to leave their party in a presidential election.
However, there doubtless would be a lot of moderate Republicans who would find it easy to vote for Republican Anderson, enough so to shift a close contest toward Carter.
We think that the President's political "brain trust" has come to this same conclusion and that the Carterites are promoting an Anderson candidacy which, they feel, would likely give the President four more years in the White House.