Like water building behind a dam, voter indecision in the 1980 presidential race is reaching abnormal levels. Ordinarily, the ranks of undecided voters would be thinning out as the final election weeks near, although traditionally as many as 10 percent of the electorate say they make up their mind on election day.
"It's not guy, it's both guys' fault," says one Democratic strategist concerning the Carter and Reagan campaigns. "And add to it John Anderson. If Anderson were putting it together, people wouldn't be moving away from him.
"The men are failing to electrify the electorate, or make voters feel more comfortable with them.
"People are coming unglued, not glued, intheir choice. It defies the pattern of previous elections."
The level of undecided voters makes the Reagan camp uneasy over their apparent electoral vote lead. "The undecideds make it 50-50," one Reagan campaign official concedes.
Some of Mr. Anderson's recent slippage clearly was attributable to voters moving into the undecided ranks. But Anderson campaign workers hope the difficulty voters have in settling on Carter and Reagan could lead to increased support for their candidate.
Carter's campaign appears to be affecting the undecided trend in this way. The President's series of attacks on Reagan -- this week adding a warning of religious division between Christian and Jew to previous warnings over racism and warmongering -- appears to have been motivated by a desire to raise the level of voter apprehension about Reagan.
he risk, some Carter supporters concede, is that the public's doubts over the President's hard-hitting, innuendoladen style could further soften his own following.
The public itself, in a recent CBS/New York Times poll, divided fairly evenly over who has been the aggressor in making "unfair charges" in the campaign. One-third thought neither had been unfair. Some 38 percent of Reagan's supporters and 29 percent of Carter's thought their own man had been unfair to his opponent.
For Carter, the risk of greater numbers of undecideds must be taken, his strategists say, for the hope of a well-timed, last-minute pinning of doubt on the Republican. "People must weigh the solidarity of four years of Jimmy Carter against the risk of electing Ronald Reagan," is the way one Carter spokesman puts it.
Whether deliberately or by happenstance, voter perplexlity over their presidential choice is hanging on.
More than one-third of the voters, 36 percent, might change their choice of candidates, the Gallup poll indicated Oct. 5. Gallup found 14 percent of Carter's 38 percent of the vote were "soft." Eleven percent Reagan's 40 percent, and 4 of Anderson's 15 percent were also "soft," in addition to the 7 percent of registered voters surveyed who said they were "undecided."
Similarly, 37 percent of voters in an NBC poll released Sept. 30 said they had not made up their minds about which presidential candidate they would vote for next month, unchanged since August.
In california, with its 45 electoral votes, one-fifth of the voters there still are undecided, with Reagan garnering 40 percent, Carter 28 percent, and Anderson 11 percent of those stating a preference in a recent CBS-New York Times survey. The margin of in-doubt voters is big enough to tempt Carter forces to mount an all-out campaign to win California, a decision the President's campaign officials say they are still weighing.
Behind the indecision lie many conflicting signals reaching the public.
The NBC survey showed two-thirds of the public say the economy is the greatest factor in picking a candidate, while only one in four mention foreign policy concersn. By 2-to-1 the public thinks Reagan not Carter, could do the best job of solving economic problems, including inflation.
"Even on unemployment, finding jobs for workers -- an issue the Democratic Party has called its own since the days of the New Deal, Ronald Reagan, not Jimmy Carter, is viewed as the candidate most likely to solve the problem," the survey said.
However, support for Reagan on these economic issues was thin. Only 40 percent of voters supported him on questions like inflation, and third on unemployment.
"A very sizable group . . . is not anchored to either Carter or Reagan on these economic issues," the survey concluded. "While that must be distressing news to the Carter campaign organization, it is possible that with the aid of labor union leaders they can move these indifferent and undecided voters back to Carter."
Not all undecided voters may be willing to move back to Carter, however.
As a young food broker from Ohio, a pivotal state feeling economic stress, says, "Quite frankly, I haven't made up my mind.
I'Ve eliminated Jimmy Carter. It's been by an osmtic process -- a lot of things added together. The failure of his foreign policy. His economic policy is even worse, with interest climbing again. It's many things -- the Billy Carter affair -- many not all that significant.
"That leaves me a choice between anderson and Reagan. I hate to vote for a spoiler. But then Reagan's and actor. Maybe you need an actor in politics. I don't know."