Ronald Reagan voters have "a well-developed confidence in self." They believe they can solve the problems that will come into their lives. Many of them, though distrustful of the political process, are more inclined to vote this year than they have been in the recent past.
These are the findings of Reagan pollster and strategist Richard Wirthlin, whose surveys in 1980 have accurately anticipated the primary outcomes and Reagan's percentages in New Hampshire, Illinois and Wisconsin.
What Wirthlin has discovered, in more than a year of surveying across the country, is that the factors that attract a voter to Reagan are not necessarily related either to past voting habits or the set of conservative issues on which the former California governor is compaigning.
"I think what we're seeing is a new dimension of politics," Wirthlin said in an interview. "Gov. Reagan is enuncitating a set of values which appeal to people who don't normally come into the Republican side of the market. We find that regardless of age or income or occupation or race or partisanship, Reagan has strong appeal to two kinds of value systems."
One is a "self-assertive" ethic held by people who believe individuals are responsible for their actions. It is an ethic relating to Reagan's stand on such social issues as abortion and gun control, and that in Wirthlin's view, accounts for Reagan's appeal to Catholic, ethnic and blue-collar voters, who usually vote Democratic.
The other, related value is an "optimistic" one held by people who believe the future will be better and are generally confident of their ability to deal with problems.
One question asked by Wirthlin in his polling is, "How much confidence do you have that you are going to solve the problems that come into your life?"
People who answer with "a great deal" or "some" are much more inclined to be Reagan supporters than those who answer "not very much" or "none."
The "self-confident" voters also are inclined to believe that the supposed national "crisis of confidence" is not a lack of confidence in the United States or institutions, but a crisis of confidence in leadership. And a significant number of those respondents who did not vote in recent elections now appear convinced that participation in the electoral process is necessary in order to change this leadership, Wirthlin said.
"The political payoff of this is that it holds the Republican center, reinforcing Gov. Reagan's Republican vote, but that it also has a strong pull among blue-collar Democrats who this year seem to be voting in greater numbers," he said.
These findings were important to Reagan's strategy in the New Hampshire, Illinois and Wisconsin primaries, where a crossover of normally Democratic blue-collar voters into GOP primary was encouraged to offset some of the more liberal crossover that went to Republican presidential candidate John B. Anderson. Because these voters are politically strategically located in eastern and mid-western cities, their role could be even more important in a general election campaign pitting Reagan against President Carter.
Reagan's themes, especially his campaign slogan that "America Can Be Great Again," are designed to appeal to this self-confident voter who has become dubious about American leadership.
"The statements that Reagan makes about what the nation can do to recover its freedoms and its greatness help reduce the uncertainity of the future in this voter's mind. The assumption that we're making is that this voter no longer thinks he can take care of the future by himself and will vote for a political change," Wirthlin said.