US Voters: the middle holds against extremes

Despite the "fearmonger" and "warmonger" epithets hurled at candidates Carter and Reagan, the 1980 presidential campaign is actually being waged before a low-key, relatively calm electorate.

On social issues -- such as abortion, minority rights, prayer in schools -- the segment of the public that is stirred is at the fringes, not in the mainstream.

Conservative and liberal forces in American society seem to have wrestled to a draw, opinion experts say -- with no consensues to repeal liberal gains on sensitive issuses like abortion and equal rights, but likewise no gathering impulse toward a new round of unsetting social change.

Even on attitudes toward government, the public is ambivalent -- wanting government "off its back" but still favoring high levels of spending on services like education. And ironically it favors more arms spending while aprrehensions of war rise.

The absence of an aroused mainstream public leads some observers to see the 1980 election as one of "pause." Hence the public's difficulty in choosing among candidates Carter, Reagan, and Anderson may be traced not just to the trio's lack of personal luster, but to an ebb, a graying of domestic conflict.

"We've entered a period of political mobilization of intense minorities -- like the right-to-lifers and Moral Majority, which is really an intense minority ," says Thomas Mann, assistant director of the American Political Science Association. "A majority of the electorate does not subscribe to their views, but the majority has no passion about its opposition.

"The intense minorities are playing at the margins in this election, and elections are won at lost at the margins," adds Mr. Mann. "Anti-abortionists, religious fundamentalists, people mobilized against nuclear development, gun control, those on both sides of the gay rights question and ERA -- they are around, but they are having a hard time getting the majority's attention. The majority is more concerned about the big issues -- war and peace, the economy.

"I do not see them [special issue factions] decisive in this election -- at most in a few House or Senator races, or in a state or two in the presidential race where they have mobilized."

Better fund-raising and news media techniques have made the social issue minorities more visible, but in the mass of the public they have less traction than surface evidence suggests.

"In the last two decades, we've undergone stressful change," Mann observes. "There is a sense of 'let people alone' in personal life as we move into the '80 s."

Political analysts Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg argue in the latest issue of Public Opinion that Americans today, as in 1970, still approve of "traditional values." But the moderate 1980 mainstream is in no mood to reverse the past decade's "tidal and liberalizing change in American attitudes and culture" in areas like school prayer, abortion, equal rights for women, they say.

Opinion experts find little sign of the "racism and hate" that Jimmy Carter said in early September threatened to surface in this campaign. Blacks and whites have continued to show more openness to blacks and whites attending the same schools or living in the same neighborhoods, according to the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) of the University of Chicago.

The needs of Hispanic minorities may result in the unleashing of new political forces. But this election has made little of such a prospect.

Generational conflict -- once raging over the Vietnam war and drug use -- has eased. In 1973 Americans, by 2 to 1, thought the older and younger adult members of families should live apart. Now, partly no doubt because of tighter economic conditions, opinion is evenly divided.

"The only real age factor in this election seems to be the young professional types' support for Anderson," says Greg Martire, vice-president of Yankelovich, Skelly & white, the New York opinion research firm. "But there is no split between the generations."

Mr. Martire and others also see "no radical differences between Catholic and Protestants" in the 1980 election.

"The Catholic/Protestant division was the great split in American politics from the end of the Civil War," says Everett Ladd, director of the University of Connecticut's Roger Center. "But over the last 20 years, so much of that has disappeared. On social issues there were differences on divorce and abortion. But these have faded. On government and policy issues -- once reflected in 'Catholic vote' support for the New Deal -- differences now are linked more to economic class than to religion."

On the issue of tax credits for private school tuition, favored by Ronald Reagan, a liaison has been forged between white Southern Protestants and northern urban Roman Catholics, who were once antithetical voter blocs, Mr. Ladd says.

New surveys show two-thirds of Catholics and Protestants disapprove of activist religious groups working to defeat candidates in this election. They largely agree in disapproving church leaders calling it "a sin" to vote for a candidate who favors abortion. On abortion itself, frequency of attendance at church makes more of a difference in voter views than church affiliation, surveys show.

Defense spending, fear of war, rights for women, and the hostage issue seem to carry the highest emotional charge in the 1980 election, the experts say.

On defense spending, the NORC's landmark annual opinion studies reflect a very dramatic climb from 12 percent to 60 percent of the public calling for more military, armaments, and defense outlays since 1973, and particularly since 1978 . But this climb can be explained in a return to the characteristic hawk-dove balance in US thinking that was upset by te vietnam buildup and wind-down.

"There has been an extraordinary consistency since World War II in public attitudes toward defense spending, except for the drop during the Vietnam period ," Ladd says. "The public has been consistently assertive on foreign intervention, but not bellicose. It was not mass public appeal for war that got us involved in Vietnam, but supporting the president.

"If a candidate is seen as soft, he suffers; or asventurous, he suffers. Eisenhower benefited in '56 over Lebanon [he sent in US Marines to stabilize the situation] by seeming prudent but firm. What we're seeing now is a return to the sentiment of most periods since World War II. Recent polls showing an increase in support for defense spending, but only to bring it back after the post Vietnam letdown."

The fear that the US might get into a war is likewise "an old story in terms of this population," Ladd says. "Reagan is vulnerable on that, but not because of any change in public attitudes. That's the one personal charge that seems to have struck on Reagan."

The 1980 campaign is marked more by public disappointment with the candidates than by excitement over issues, says James Shriver, managing editor of the Gallup Poll.

"People are bored with this campaign," Mr. Shriver says. "The hostage issue is as close to a votem issue as I've seen in this election. Everything is on one side on the defense issue. It's only a matter of degree, with everyone on the right. The whole inflation question is amorphous. People can't see how to make it clear-cut."

Greg Martire of the Yankelovich firm also sees the public in a flat mood, despite his opinion that America's problems are serious enough to merit public arousal.

"It is a zero sum society," he says. "No one wants to pay the price for various changes. [Independent candidate John] Anderson is trying to make the case for defining the prices, but with difficulty. There is no public bent to achieve anything in any direction, no groundswell of opinion.

"Most people think things after the election will be the same as before," he says.

"I view this stasis as bad. We have over-whelming problems to deal with. And we can't do it without a sense of national agenda," concludes Martire.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.