Unlike national defense, American politics has no NORAD in the mountains -- no computerized, sophisticated early warning system to track the advent of the 1980 presidential race.
Indeed, as the hot summer days start -- the early but critical moment for setting the lines of attack for the fall campaign -- political experts suggest widely differing avenues for anticipating the campaign's course.
Republican pollster Robert Teeter says the race comes down to two pivotal states, Ohio and Illinois. By watching the contest in the two heartland states, the public will be able to see which way the election will tilt, he says.
"The third key state would have been California," Mr. Teeter says. "But Reagan has it locked up. The Republicans can be elected without taking New York -- they've done it twice. But none have done it without Ohio.
"If you force me to call it: Illinois and Ohio are the toughest to decide because they are so close -- with or without John Anderson in the race."
In one of the more generous readings of how Rep. John B. Anderson factors into the presidential race, political analyst Alan Baron gives the independent Republican five states as of now -- New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Wisconsin, or 77 electoral votes. Democratic pollster Michael Barrone adds an edge for Mr. Anderson in Michigan and Oregon, too, at the moment.
But most observers think Mr. Anderson will likely fade, while remaining a factor on the ballots in all or nearly all the states.
I. A. Lewis, director of the Los Angeles Times poll, sees Mr. Anderson's best chance for electoral votes in New York State. "New York is a Democratic state that sometimes goes Republican," Mr. Lewis says. "Particularly with Gov. Hugh Carey for a vice-president, and support from Jews, Anderson could carry it."
Most analysts see Representative Anderson bearing a tremendous burden of proof to show his political strength. "I'm figuring Anderson on the ballot in every state -- getting 2 percent in Mississippi, South Carolina, 25 percent in New York," says Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center. "But I don't see him taking any states. I see liberals turning to Carter."
Closely following the campaign will require a dozen video tape recorders -- to track the political ads on the three networks in the four regions of the US, says Mr. Barrone.
"The four regions -- Northeast, South, Central, and West -- are showing very different political reactions, with significant consequences for the presidential election in 1980," says the pollster and consultant for Democratic candidates in many states, and author of the "Almanac of American Politics -- 1980."
"We will see different campaigns in different parts of the country," Mr. Barrone says. And the differences will appear most sharply in heavy-hitting campaign TV ads tailored to the different regions.
Many analysts see two basic campaign lines in 1980, through two sets of "swing states." The first line stretches across the gulf from Texas to Florida and includes Mississippi and Alabama. Mr. Reagan is seen strongest in Texas, but capable of taking at least two other states there.
The second swing state line stretches across the industrial crescent from Illinois and Wisconsin eastward through Ohio and Pennsylvania, to New Jersey and New York. A lesser swing region could develop down the west coast from Washington through Oregon to California, some analysts believe, if Mr. Anderson surges or Mr. Reagan sags.
But some political experts do not trust vote mapping at this early stage. "Even though we count electoral votes by states, typically the guy with the most votes nationally wins," says Thomas Mann, University of Virginia political scientist. "It still is a fact the outcome won't be the result of local factors. It will be determined by events like what kind of vice-president Reagan chooses, what the public thinks of Reagan after Carter unleashes his attack, how Reagan holds up after the debates."
The national tide of public sentiment, as measured in the opinion polls, will reflect these broader events-based trends, Mr. Mann says.
In Ohio, political observers at the moment give Mr. Reagan the edge.
National polls put Mr. Reagan ahead by some 10 points. Alan Baron in his latest Washington newsletter gives Mr. Reagan 27 more electoral votes than the 270 he needs -- at the moment. If Mr. Barrone's giving Mr. Anderson a chance 104 electoral votes bears out, the election would be headed for the House of Representatives to decide.
But analysts focusing more on the fall than on the present see Mr. Carter stronger then.
"I have Carter ahead (for November)," says the election research center's Scammon. "Anderson will not take any states in the fall unless he becomes in effect the Democratic nominee. If Anderson runs very well, or very poorly, Reagan will win." But Mr. Scammon sees Mr. Anderson performing modestly, not well or poorly, leaving the advantage to the incumbent Carter.
The incumbency theme plays heavily with other experts, too. "The last Democratic incumbent to lose was Grover Cleveland in 1888," says Washington University presidential scholar Stephen Wayne.
"Democrats will find they will either have to stay at home or vote for Carter ," Mr. Wayne says."As of now, liberal Democrats think of Anderson as a Carter alternative. But his record will show Anderson more conservative than Carter, and Carter the more moderate. And where are the Reaganites going to reach for a majority?"
"Reagan would be a shoo-in if [former president] Ford moved from California and ran as his vice-president," says Mr. Lewis, a former partner in the Roper Organization. "Reagan looks like he's ahead now. But we'll have to see."