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What the Voters Want

Presidential Expectations

If you adhere to the conventional wisdom of the press—that all presidential campaigns are decided by issues or personality—you will have a devil of a time understanding the voter's frame of mind in 1976.

If the campaign were reduced strictly to a question of issues, one should be able to predict a solid victory for Carter. To the extent that any issue has dominated public concerns, it has been the economy. With the recovery now in a pause, inflation on the rise again, unemployment steady at about eight percent, some 7.5 million job-seeking Americans out of work and with an additional 2.5 million more people sliding below the poverty level in 1975—anxieties about the economy are intense. Traditionally, this should redound to Carter's benefit. The Republicans, after all have occupied the White House for the past eight years. The Republicans, also, are conventionally perceived as the party of big business, the party least exercised about the plight of the disadvantaged. Despite all this. Carter has yet to capitalize decisively on the economic issue. Though it is of great concern to the voters, it has not worked in a conventional sense to benefit Carter. Our most recent surveys for Time magazine show that a majority of voters endorse the Carter position on unemployment, but they also show that rising voter concern with this issue did not help Carter's standing in the polls, at least not in the period just preceding and following the first debate.

While Ford's performance in the first debate impressed the voters overall more than Carter's performance did (41 percent to 28 percent), more voters actually agreed with Carter's stand on the issues than with Ford's (44 percent to 40 percent). Carter went on to "win" the second debate, but for reasons unrelated to his stand on particular foreign policy issues. In this campaign, issues have not had a decisive influence on voter preference. 

Similar considerations hold for personality as a deciding factor. Much of what has been said about the debates and the campaign thus far has focused on personalities, on the need of each candidate to cultivate certain "images" reflecting the kind of person he is. Before the first debate in Philadelphia about all one heard from the Ford camp was that the President needed to be perceived as "presidential." The Carter camp has been even more preoccupied with personality. In the Bill Moyers interview on his religious beliefs, in the much-publicized Playboy interview and in the Norman Mailer interview for The New York Times, Carter clearly felt the need to let voters know about his personality. He had heard often enough that one of the most serious obstacles to be overcome in his drive for the presidency was the voters' uncertainty about what kind of a person he really is. Although for a brief period in late September and early October Carter was hurt by his self-exposure efforts, it was not for the reason usually supposed. Few voters were influenced by the Playboy interview: most of those who were turned out to be pro-Ford voters anyway. Furthermore, voters insist that Carter's religious views are not crucial—and there is every reason to believe them.

What hurt Carter was voter confusion. In dwelling on his personal life, beliefs and personality. Carter gave voters largely irrevelant information. Voters are anxious to know what they can expect from a Carter presidency, not from Carter as a private person. Personal traits that have little, if any, bearing on the presidency may be interesting and helpful in rounding out the picture of the man. But they are the dessert, not the meat and potatoes. Unless the voters have a fairly clear notion of the candidate's public objectives and political strengths—as they do not in Carter's case—the secondary personality considerations simply serve to confuse and divert, rather than to clarify and focus.

Nor is personality a dominant influence in Ford's case. Personally, Ford is well liked. He is seen by the voters as open, decent, likeable, friendly; as a straightforward, down-to-earth man. This favorable perception, however, has not yet been translated into a firm, decisive electoral advantage for the President. Significantly, when his supporters are asked why they prefer him, most of them (67 percent) answer by saying that they have "doubts and questions about Jimmy Carter." Ford's own personality hardly enters their calculations.

Perhaps the best way to understand this election is to think of the presidency as a job to be filled. The voters are doing the hiring: they have a set of job qualifications, as does any employer, and they are looking for the candidate who best "fits" these qualifications. This set of qualifications may not be coherently organized in the voters' minds, but it is nonetheless real, and it is based on an identifiable shift in the public mood. What this presidential criterion amounts to, finally, is a particular notion of fitness.

Fitness as defined by the voters and applied to the presidency is always a product of a particular period and national mood. This year is no exception. What is different in 1976 is that the national mood has shifted rather dramatically, and the criteria of fitness have changed accordingly. Unlike the 1950s—which saw an eager pursuit of private success—and unlike the1960s—when no obstacle seemed too great, no problem too intractable to be overcome by the American élan vital—the mood today has been sobered by feelings of frustration on both the personal and national level.

People today have an all-pervasive sense that there is something wrong in the country. They feel that our political institutions are eluding democratic control; they see corruption and unfairness becoming endemic; they are distressed by what they perceive as a breakdown in social norms, heightened irresponsibility, rising criminality, the encroachment of narrow special interests on the public good. These concerns—much in the background in the 1950s and '60s—are the source of what many have pointed to as serious public disillusionment, frustration and disaffection, not just with our political system, but with virtually all major institutions.

Despite this real and deeply felt frustration, the public mood in 1976 is not defeatist or sour. On the contrary, as three studies just released by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Agenda Foundation indicate, Americans seem prepared to confront head-on the major sources of national distress. In analyzing public attitudes toward the economy, foreign policy and the issue of moral leadership in government, the Public Agenda's reports found, on the one hand, little of the complacency of the 1950s, and, on the other hand, not much of the nothing-is-impossible-for-America psychology of the 1960s. According to this research, people don't want to stick their heads ostrich-like into the sands of private concerns; but neither do they want to tackle problems in reckless disregard of constraints. 

One of the striking shifts in the public mood between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s has been the appearance of a national sense of restraint long taken for granted in private life—the realization that one's ambitions and desires more often than not cannot be gratified without compromise. It has dawned on people that governments, like individuals, must be guided by practicality. There is, then, a strong dose of realism in the public mood, the kind that calls for carefully defined, achievable goals and objectives and that recoils in disbelief from empty promises that cannot be filled.

Out of this new mood has emerged a concept of fitness consisting of three main components: a demand for greater moral leadership in government, a longing somehow to get things under control, and desire for a more compassionate, more responsive government. The dominant element among these is the first, which has been explored in-depth in the Public Agenda 's report. Moral Leadership in Government. Drawing on this study, one can define the moral leadership issue according to six basic principles:

• Fairness. The public is insisting that anyone who wants to be President should exhibit a firm commitment and an ability to restore fairness to all areas of our society—to taxes, jobs, education, health care, etc. People are realistic enough to understand that what they want out of government requires a heavy burden of taxation. They are not trying to escape from shouldering their fair share of the burden. But they see gross injustices in the tax structure, and they want that changed. Likewise, the public senses that there is something fundamentally unfair in a society that emphasizes the work ethic and yet fails to provide jobs to those willing and able to work. The argument that millions of job-seeking Americans must continue to suffer from unemployment in order to control inflation simply doesn't wash,

• Restoring Respect for the Law and for Moral Norms. There is a feeling that we have suffered from a serious breakdown of the norms that have governed society and kept it stable in the past. One aspect of this breakdown, as the public sees it, has been the rise in criminality and an accompanying diminution in personal safety. The public feels strongly that something must be done to stop letting people get away with murder—literally and figuratively.

• Restoring a Concept of the Public Good. As the Public Agenda's report states:

Americans fear that the country has been trending toward a psychology of self-interest so all-embracing that no room is left for commitment to national and community interests. They sense that we risk losing something precious to the meaning of the American experience. They fear that in the pursuit of their organizational goals, the politicians and the businessmen and the professions have lost sight of any larger obligation to the public and are indifferent or worse to anything that does not benefit—immediately and directly —themselves or their institutions. They fear that the very meaning of the public good is disappearing, drowned in a sea of self-seeking.

• Involving People More in the Decisions that Affect Their Lives. Whereas democratic government is founded on the notion that the people's will is manifest in the decisions of their elected representatives, the conviction is widespread that a broad and ever-present chasm has opened between what the people really want and what the government normally delivers. People have the idea that the government's approach to the public is fraught, at worst, with manipulation and outright lying, and, at best, with a lack of regard for what the public would like to see done. The only sure way to guard against this condition, it is widely felt, is for avenues to be opened which will allow people to participate more actively and continuously in the vital decisions that affect their lives. They recognize—and accept—a growing dependency on government, but they want more rather than less service from it. But they want government to be more responsive to those whose lives are directly affected.

• Redressing a Perceived Imbalance Between Rights and Responsibilities. There is a prevalent notion that the past decade or so has witnessed a rapid expansion in individual freedoms, rights and entitlements, without an accompanying regard for individual duties and responsibilities. It is widely believed that people have come to expect too much in the way of guaranteed satisfactions, to take too many things for granted, without feeling obliged to give anything in return. As the Public Agenda's report says, the public feels that to redress this imbalance the President "should use his unique moral authority to stress citizen obligations to the community rather than individual rights."

• Trust. People today are tired of being promised one thing and seeing the opposite happen. They're fed up not just with deception, but also with well-me ant promises that have little chance of being kept. In recent years the bond of basic trust that ties Americans to their government has been strained to the breaking point, People hunger to have this bond repaired and strengthened, and yet, having been let down so often, they are mistrustful of those who ask for their trust without demonstrating as concretely and specifically as possible why it should be given. No issue is more important in this campaign than the matter of restoring basic trust—and showing proof that it is deserved.

The average voter does not articulate these principles precisely in this form. They are not tightly organized or coherent. But they are nonetheless real. And it is evident that they cannot be reduced strictly to a matter of issues or to a matter of personalities. It's important to note, too, that these principles have little to do with matters of private or community morality. For most voters, a candidate's specific stand on abortion, or on pornography, or on religion, is hardly relevant to the question of whether or not he can provide the kind of national leadership the voters find lacking. Like Carter's discussion of his private thoughts, the candidates' focus on abortion and similar issues does more to divert and confuse the electorate than to tell it what it really wants to know.

A key component of fitness for the presidency in 1976 is the public's desire to have a President who can somehow get things under control. People have been living for some time with a compelling unease that our society has been floundering, that it is a largely rudderless ship, tossed about by the waves of self-interest of various groups and institutions, with no course charted, no meaningful public purpose in view. People are looking for a President who can get a handle on things. They want leadership in the sense of mastery—knowing what is going on, knowing bow to manage, to set priorities, to improve effectiveness.

This desire to restore a sense of control lies at the heart of the much-discussed "big government" issue. Public attitudes on this issue have for the most part been misconstrued. People are concerned not so much about the "bigness" of government as such, as with "inefficiency," its lack of responsiveness, the public belief that government and other major institutions are operating exclusively in their own self-interests without consideration of the public good. People know that they cannot by themselves, as private citizens, bring the economy under control, insure a strong defense, guarantee their personal safety, restore respect for the law, afford the benefits of modern medicine, preserve the environment, secure for themselves a peaceful, healthy and dignified old age and protect themselves from the vast array of special interests that constitute so much of modern America.

Individualism in America is not dead. But it has been pushed from the public domain into the private—with emphasis on self-fulfillment, interesting work, self-education, sexuality, concern with health and nutrition, a more open marriage, a more relaxed attitude toward success, and a taste of the full, rich life. These matters are still seen as being within the individual's control. The sphere of what the individual cannot do for himself has greatly expanded and the government's role is accepted as basic and decisive in this enlarged arena. What people are demanding, therefore, is no less government but better government.

Compassion is the final component of fitness. It is important to emphasize, not because it is t he most important element, but because it is so easily overlooked. Americans continue to strongly support such ideals as equality of opportunity, a good education for all children, assistance for the elderly and the disadvantaged, help for those in need abroad. It is thought that more fairness in the tax structure, a greater assumption of personal responsibilities by individuals, more concern for the public good, and improved efficiency in government would not only permit an easier identification of those genuinely in need, but also greater resources with which to work.

How have the two candidates measured up to the criteria thus far? By recent public opinion measures, not very well. A tone of disappointment and lack of enthusiasm pervades the campaign. Some of the "fitness" issues discussed above have been raised by the candidates, but both sides suffer from a credibility problem: the public dismisses much of what is said as campaign rhetoric and empty overpromising. Throughout this campaign, we have found an unprecedented number of uncommitted or "soft" voters—people who may be leaning towards one candidate or the other, but who have not firmly made up their mind. Our opinion surveys show that more than half of the electorate (52 percent) can be classified as "soft" and uncommitted, almost four times as many voters who could be classified as such at a comparable point in 1972.

Behind this year's uncertainty lies conflict and indecision in the voters' mind. The voters simply have not yet decided whether Ford or Carter comes closer to meeting the job qualifications they have in mind. As the late sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld pointed out 30 years ago, conflict and indecision breed procrastination in making decisions. When people are uncertain, when they don't have a clear not ion of which candidate appears more fit, they tend to postpone the final decision as long as possible.

In elections, there is the third option of not voting at all. Many voters may. In this way, opt out of the decision altogether if their conflict continues unresolved. Given the current labile state of the campaign, and barring some major breakthrough, the prospect is for an election very much like that of 1948, one in which a decisive number of voters did not make up their minds until the very end, or did not vote at all. (In 1948, only 51.1 percent of the electorate voted.)

For the next few weeks, voters will be firming up their decisions. Most likely, they will take as much time as they have available. They will continue to search hungrily for some element in the campaign—a clue in a speech or debate, a development on the national or international scene—that will convince them one way or the other. In doing so, they will be focusing mainly, though not entirely, on Jimmy Carter. For it is the confusion about Carter that lies at the heart of the voters' indecision. The electorate feels that it has a fairly clear sense of what a Ford presidency would be like. A Carter presidency, on the other hand, is still somewhat of a mystery. The voters would like to believe that he offers fresh thinking. But they're not yet sure; they haven't been persuaded. They haven't drawn a firm bead on Carter, and that is what the final phase of this campaign is all about.

It is important, particularly for the candidates, to realize who is making this decision, because when I say the voters, what 1 really mean is the Independents, the moderate center of the American electorate. The Democratic and Republican party faithful have pretty much made up their minds. The polls show that the most volatile and indecisive voters are the Independents—a group as large as the Republican party, and one that is neither markedly liberal nor conservative.

If Jimmy Carter can convince enough Independents that he is fit to be President, he will win the election. He has a lot of built-in advantages—an opponent who must defend eight difficult years of Republican Incumbency, the voters' desire for a change, problems with the economy, the electorate's impulse to find a leader who can restore the moral authority of the presidency and coalesce the nation around a clearly perceived national purpose. But all of these advantages will go for naught if Carter fails to persuade the public that he is fit to govern. In the primaries, it was enough to ask for the voters' trust. But for many reasons this direct appeal to trust no longer works. In his words and actions. Carter must now present good evidence of realism, practicality, fairness, sound judgment, and above all, determination to promise only what he can deliver. If he doesn't succeed, the electorate will settle for Ford—less than enthusiastically, but nonetheless decisively. Ford is acceptable: he is the incumbent and he is a known quantity. In easier, more lighthearted times, the public might be willing to take more of a chance. But it is characteristic of the current somber mood of moral realism that the public should now press Carter hard to eschew the politician's easy promise or easy rhetoric in order to get down to bedrock reality. If Carter is to win he will have to persuade the Independents that he's more than a traditional Democrat willing to promise the moon, irrespective of costs.

This article originally ran in the October 23, 1976, issue of the magazine.