Stretched out on a green vinyl recliner and with a Lite beer in reach, Wayne Cleveland, a 32-year-old Montgomery County police sergeant and idiosyncratic voter, turned his attention to Ronald Reagan's television address Sunday night with the kind of casual spectator's interest he might give the next batter in the World Series.
"Well," he asked his wife with ironic portentousness, "are you going to listen to Reagan swear to God he's not a warmonger?"
For several months, Cleveland had been struggling with his choice in the presidential election, a model undecided voter in search of a concrete basis for a decision. By Sunday evening,, he had decided, tentatively, to vote for Reagan. Yet, as he watched Reagan's speech, his perceptions were not those of a teetering supporter grasping for reassurance, but of a detached observer, a sportscaster weighing the significance of a crucial play in a close game.
"Good job, Ronald, though you spoke a little fast," Cleveland announced when the speech was over. Reagan, he concluded, "hadn't hurt himself too bad." He had appealed to Jewish voters and hadn't sounded defensive, but the tenor of the remarks about America's role in the world surprised Cleveland. "I thought he would try to appeal to more people by staying more in the middle of the road."
Never mind that Cleveland, in his own mind, shares Reagan's harder line on foreign policy. After months of inundating coverage of the presidential campaign, Cleveland, almost as a defense, is inclined to view each broadcast -- even if it is a direct statement from the candidates -- first as political theater, and only secondarily as something that might help him make up his mind.
For Cleveland and most of a dozen other undecided voters followed by The Washington Post over the past month, the search for critical information in a campaign year has been less a matter of looking than one of screening. Rather than seek out the answers to lingering doubts or factual questions, they have simply waited passively as wave after wave of political news, analysis, and rhetoric has swept over them.
Much of the information, even that judged important by the candidates or the official observers, has been cast aside and ignored. Other parts have been coldly analyzed and dissected for their horse-race-watching value.
Meanwhile, quite independently, each of these voters has been compiling a sort of mental catalogue of bits and pieces, shards of fact or image that somehow penetrate their shields of sportscaster objectivity and become a part of their own debates. The story of how Cleveland has found his own slices of meaning amid all he has watched and read, and used them to make his own logical decision, is a story of how voters all over the country, in a million individual ways, are deciding the election.
That story begins, as it must, with Cleveland's own values, the way he judges most everything that happens around him. A man of medium height whose bulky shoulders, sharp features and longish streaked-blond hair fit his job as a narcotics detective, Cleveland has followed a hard course in life through three years -- and three wounds -- as a paratrooper in Vietnam, 11 years of a policeman's slow climb up the ranks from patrol duty, and nine years of night school to earn his college degree.
He is a reflective man who would like to pursue advanced degrees and perhaps become a teacher, but when he faces a political decision, his instinct is to be quick, logical but decisive. He doesn't like to be undecided. In his mind, he likes to see his thoughts organized on a crisp sheet of paper with a firm line drawn down the center. On one side are points for Reagan.On the other are points for Carter. At the bottom is the inevitable conclusion. t
Anderson, for Cleveland, never fit on the balance sheet. "He doesn't have a chance, and even if he did, I don't like what I've heard from him," is Cleveland's firm verdict.
And so, for months, Cleveland has been watching for ways to balance the candidates, trying to pick up the solid, concise facts that can be listed on one side or the other. Not surprisingly, one of the first items to affect him was a display in the September issue of Reader's Digest. On one side of page 75 was "Why You Should Vote Republican," by Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y). On the other side of the page was "Why You Should Vote Democratic," by Rep. Jim Wright (D-Tex.).
Here was solid yet abridged summaries of the opposing ideologies. The Democrats, said Kemp, "have saddled the nation" with "the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression." The Republicans, said Wright, believed in an economic theory that would "shower . . . blessings on those at the top of the economic pyramid."
Cleveland was sympathetic to both these charges. Later, he would tick them off in his lists of factors for and against the presidential candidates.
By Late September, Cleveland had picked out a variety of items for his mental list, many of them boiled down from the expansive publicity surrounding the campaign's early issues. Carter was not a leader. Reagan, on the other hand, was an actor. Reagan's energy policy was "absurd." But Reagan's running mate was George Bush, a man with the sort of solid credentials in foreign policy that Cleveland likes to depend on.
"So far each one of them has one black mark," he said then. "There has been stealth for Carter and the KKK for Reagan. So they're even."
Despite all the information he had selected as important about the candidates, though, Cleveland was unable to find a way to choose. "I keep flipping back and forth," he said. He hadn't thought of the way to match the two sides point by point, and declare a winner. And so, almost desperately, he was thinking he would decide by black marks alone. "I guess I'm waiting for one of the two candidates to screw up enough so that I just have to vote for the other guy," he concluded. And on that note, for several weeks, he waited. Sifting Out Factors
Other undecided voters had very different ways of sifting out usable information from the babble of voices on radio and television and from the gray type in the newspapers and magazines. A single snippet of information can push some to a decision, while others treat all the news they hear as mere background noise, no more interesting or relevant than the humming of a distant vacuum cleaner.
For Dan Walder of Gaithersburg, one random report in the midst of a National Public Radio newscast was enough. The report included an interview with a German newspaper editor who spent several minutes decrying what he called Carter's unreliablity. The European allies, he said, had been continually bewildered and dismayed during the past few years by abrupt shifts in the foreign policy of the United States.
That one report, two weeks ago, dispelled the ambivalence that had plagued Walder since August. He decided to vote for Reagan.
For Myron Pauley, there has been no such bolt from the blue. Sometimes he wishes there had been. The 65-year-old artchitect is retired, watches the CBS Evening News three or four times a week, watches the Agronsky and Company public affairs discussion every Saturday night and spends about 20 minutes reading The Post in the mornings. But these reports only reinforce his own ambivalence and apathy. He remembers little of what he has heard or read.
"Everything I hear reinforces the inadequacies of both candidates and adds to my confusion," Pauley said last week. " . . . I feel less adequate to make a decision now than I did a month ago." Somehow, some crucial information must have been withheld from him, he feels -- but he doesn't know exactly what it might be.
Two other undecided voters, Craig Horn and Cheryl Morrow, have much clearer memories of what they have heard and how it has affected them. But, typicallly, there is a distinct contrast between their perceptions of the news -- and the uses to which they put it.
Morrow, a 31-year-old Gaithersburg housewife, has spent the fall bouncing back and forth between Carter and Anderson, her views shifting with every newspaper article she reads in The Washington Post and her onetime hometown paper, The Providence Journal, which she gets by mail. Until recently, each article she read resolved some of her doubts, only to raise new ones.
Two weeks ago, she leaned toward Carter out of fear that voting for Anderson would be tantamount to electing Reagan. And if Reagan were elected -- according to several articles she had read -- he might appoint judges who subscribe to the conservative, fundamentalist beliefs that Morrow abhors.
"I've been in the same room with those people [a reference to members of Moral Majority, the politically active evangelical group] and been called names by them . . . In my worst imaginings I think of [antiabortion crusader] Phyllis Schlafly on the bench."
But then, as she read story after story recounting Carter's attacks on Reagan, she felt it would be impossible to vote for him. Which left her with an uncomfortable choice. A vote for Anderson might help Reagan and the people she calls "The Moral Majority Types." But a vote for Carter would be a form of sanction for campaign tactics she found infuriating.
Last week, in the midst of this dilemma, she found three newspaper articles that seemed to resolve her problems, for the time being. One indicated that the influence of the Moral Majority on Reagan and on voters in general was being exaggerated by the media. The second and third items noted that Anderson's support was slipping away to Carter.
If the Moral Majority is not a significant force and Anderson poses less of a threat to Carter, she believes, a vote for Anderson is safe.
Horn, a 36-year-old food broker, has been able to make no such temporary peace for himself. Unlike Morrow, he does not use the news media to define most of his questions about the election. His one unchanging question about the campaign is: Which candidate thinks and works the way I do?
He was driving from the Baltimore suburbs back to his Laurel office last Tuesday, riding with another employe of his food equipment sales company, when he heard a report that Reagan had promised to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court. He said nothing to his friend, but fumed silently. When WTOP radio followed the Reagan report with Carter's reaction -- criticizing Reagan for pandering to women -- Horn felt a quick sense of satisfaction.
Score one for Carter.
But just four hours later, Horn heard an expanded version of the report -- one that included a brief question-and-answer session with the former California governor. In this broadcast, Reagan said that he would not eliminate a potential candidate for a judicial appointment solely because of her stand on abortion.
"I could really buy into what he was saying there," an enthusiastic Horn said late last week. "You don't appoint someone on the basis of one issue -- that doesn't tell you about the overall character and ability of a person."
Within the space of four hours -- during which he had heard perhaps 30 or more news reports -- Horn found only two worth remembering. In the end, they only tugged him in two directions at once, leaving him little closer to a decision than he was when he started. Avoiding Campaign DISTORTIONS
After weeks of drifting, Wayne Cleveland suddenly decided about two weeks ago that it was time for him to start making up his mind in the presidential race, to draw the line and compare the candidates. "What hit me," he said, "was the fact that it was four weeks before the election and I ought to have a stronger opinion."
Cleveland's determination, however, did not make his attention to television news and print reports any more thorough. Rather, he turned away most of what the media offered him.
Some of it, he felt, was not solid or concise enough for him to use intelligently. The articles on presidential campaign issues appearing last week in The Washington Post, for example, were "way too long," he said. "I looked at one and it took up an entire page. I'm not going to read all that." l
At the same time, he felt that much of the newspaper and television coverage of the candidates -- and the statements of the candidates themselves -- was tainted. All those stories and speeches appealed only to the casual spectator in Cleveland, not the voter. "I think Carter's ads are effective in showing him as a commander-in-chief," he would say, or "I think Carter has done a good job putting Reagan on the defensive on the warmonger issue." But did he grow more confident in Carter's leadership, or begin to doubt Reagan's judgment in foreign policy? "Oh no, that doesn't have any effect on me," he said. "I write it all off as politics."
In the end, Cleveland felt there was only one solid basis on which he could make a judgment, amid the confusions, promises and distortions of the campaign: mpast performance, the solid, indisputable facts of the record. It made sense of his own world of narcotics investigations and hard work up the ladder. And on that basis, the promises of Reagan, the attacks of Carter, and, in fact, most of what he had thought of before as the elements of his choice disappeared.
He was left, essentially, looking for a few hard, quick pieces of information. And during that week, one could be found in his Oct. 20 issue of U.S. News and World Report, which he often uses to satisfy his unbreakable habit of reading in bed before he sleeps. In the "Newsgram" report of that issue, a short, telegraph-style summary of political events and trends that Cleveland points to as the kind of report he most appreciates, a comment appeared that after the election, "problems will be grim." Then, in three sentences, the magazine capsulized Carter's economic record for Cleveland: 7.5 percent unemployment, 12 percent inflation, mortgage interest rates at 12-13 percent.
Later, Cleveland would cite those figures on one side of his balance sheet, the essence of the Carter record. On the other side, he needed to know Reagan's record as governor of California. And, as luck would have it, the Reagan campaign that same week was broadcasting the highlights of that record in one television advertisement: "He took a budget deficit," Cleveland remembers, "and turned it into a surplus. And that's the sort of thing that the country needs now -- less government, more support for the private sector, cuts in spending."
That, Cleveland said, settled it. "I told my wife that it looked like I was going to go for Reagan," he said last week, "and it nearly floored her. But if you sit down and compare the two on their records, Reagan just comes out way out in front."
Many issues were important to Cleveland, and still are. But in the end, his decision seemed to be based in large part on information that could be found in that one short magazine item and the one Reagan comercial.
Out of all he had seen and heard in the last weeks, it was those items that, striking him randomly, made sense within the framework he had built of his own logic and life experience.
"It is," he said, "the only measure I can look at."