Out in the Maryland suburbs, insulated from the rhetoric of the campaign trail and far from the public view, live the types of voters who are quietly shaping the 1980 presidential election.
Their ranks include Dianne Betsey, a 37-year-old tenant organizer, house-wife and mother from Silver Spring; Wayne Cleveland, 31, a policeman and thrice-wounded Vietnam veteran from Damascus; John Doskicz, 38, a Hyattsville electronics entrepreneur, Larry Hyatt, a Silver Spring consultant who once stuffed envelopes for Eugene McCarthy, and Myron Pauley, 65, a retired Glen Echo architect with first-hand memories of the Depression.
They have only one characteristic in common, but taken together with millions of others like them around the country, they comprise perhaps the most significant force in American politics today.
All are undecided voters.
Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and John Anderson, in a sense, have little control over these people as they mull the options before them. In the end, they say, when the choice is finally mede, it will result from a random collision of public affairs and personal feelings.
Betsey, Cleveland, Doskicz, Hyatt and Pauley are five of a dozen undecided voters interviewed in the Maryland suburbs in the last week in an effort to define this stranded constituency caught between political parties or between personal values and candidates' rhetoric that seems to bear very little relation to them. From now until election day these 12 voters will be followed as they seek ways to decide, and as external forces such as a distant war or a conversation with spouse intervene in the process.
By and large, they are hoping that it will be one event or series of events -- a statement, a blunder, a crisis, a stray news report -- that will clarify their political confusion. "I'm waiting," says Wayne Cleveland, "for one of the two candidates to screw up enough so that I'm going to say, 'I've got to vote for the other guy.'"
At the same time, the publicized issues of the fall campaign have signified little more to them than black headlines in newspapers, the depressing but irrelevant maneuvering that they have come to expect in presidential politics. "When I read the paper and see a headline that says 'Carter says Reagan' or 'Reagan says Carter,' I just skip it," said Cheryl Morrow, a 31-year-old Gaithersburg housewife. "It has nothing to do with my choice."
These different voters wait for very different kinds of imperatives. A speech by Ronald Reagan next month may mean nothing to most of them -- or to the makers of public opinion -- but it may have the phrase that makes sense of the choice for one.
For some, the dilemma is framed by idelology; their firmly held political beliefs have been trampled, in one way or another, by all of the candidates. For others, the process of becoming undecided began on election night, 1976, when a man they deeply admired was elected president and then went to disappoint them, shattering their faith in all candidates.
Still others have been trapped by a presidential election as they were creeping between parties -- Democrats who are becoming more conservative or moderate Republicans who feel left out of their party. And some are waiting for a presidential candidate to display an ethic or a policy that has been the guiding point of their own lives.
Dianne Betsey was one of the believers in candidate Carter in 1976. Even then, however, the seeds of her present indecision were being sowed. As a black woman, a child of Harlem with a deepseated commitment to civil rights issues, she invested long-deffered hopes in the Carter presidency. Her belief was so powerful that she can remember the moment it climaxed, election night 1976:
"We sat in front of the TV. Charles (her husband) went to bed at 3 a.m., but I stayed in that living room. I watched every election figure come in from every state." Her eyes now flash with excitement as she stares at the bland screen of the same television in her Silver Spring apartment. She clasps her hands together, filled with anticipation as if the 1976 figures are coming in all over again.
"I watched Carter make his aceptance speech from that convention center in Atlanta. I watched him win that election!" A smile breaks across her face, triumph combined with relief, as if she has just crossed the finish line. fHer clenched hands are raised in victory.
Suddenly the hands drop limply at her sides. She opens them and looks at the empty palms. " . . . And then," she says, as if the first rush of disbelief is hitting. "And then," she repeats, this time with finality, as if that is the answer: There is no more to say.
Betsey sees herself as a betrayed believer. She cannot vote for Carter again, she says. Anderson is her favorite candidate, yet she fears that he does not have enough support to do more than throw the election to Ronald Reagan, a man whom she finds more fearsome than Carter. If she becomes convinced that a vote for Anderson is a vote for Reagan, she will vote for Carter.
"To a certain extent," she says, "I know I'm helpless."
Her move toward Anderson had less to do with the independent candidate than with Carter and the degree of her disillusionment. While there were dozens of specific Carter policies and actions that turned her from the president, she pinpoints the last straw as something deeply symbolic: Carter's decision not to intercede personally in the case of imprisoned Wilmington 10 defendant, the Rev. Ben Chavis, a black leader whom she and thousands of others believed to be a political prisoner.
"That was the handwriting on the wall," she says."I just said to myself: 'Okay, so we've been had. We've been had.' We've been had. Again." She is now wringing her hands, pressing her fists against her temples. "I said to myself: 'Never. Never again will I support that man.' I don't care if he gave me half of his peanut plantation." She pauses, then sighs: "Oh God."
Her husband, who has sat in silent assent for several minutes, says: "I didn't know you got that steamed up."
D. Craig Horn was another heavy investor in the promise of Carter, 1976. A food broker with a passion for enterprise and a nearly uncanny talent for salesmanship, he spent much of that year selling Carter door-to-door in Laurel, where he was a Democratic precinct coordinator and later, a Laurel City Council president.
Now, having moved with his wife and four children to a spacious house just over the Howard County line, he laughs ruefully at his conviction four years ago that Carter "was a tremendously capable politician who could come from the outside and really give the government a new look." Ironically, he finds himself attracted to Reagan because of the same kind of promise -- only this year, he can no longer easily believe it.
But there is more to Horn's indecision than a sense of loss. A man, who at 36 has raised himself economically from subsidized housing and door-to-door sales to creamy suburbia and wide-ranging business ventures, he lives by hard work and bold initiative and wants a president who will do the same.
"The sign of hard work is to be frustrated and to make mistakes," he says, hunched forward in a living-room chair with his hands reaching and clasping in front. "I look at what I'm doing and it comes down to solving problems. That's how I approach my work -- a series of problems that I intend to solve and that can be solved. That's not to say that Carter's not trying to do that -- but things are just not happening."
Horn is waiting for a positive reason to vote for Carter or Reagan because his life has taught him not to accept a negative compromise. And his decision, when it comes, will be based on his own businessman's bedrock: problem-solving; character.
"A given issue is going to resolve itself and go away next week or next year," he says. "What I care more about is the thought process -- the quality the guy puts into solving problems and the ideas that he has."
There are many like Horn who are waiting for a candidate to fit himself, or at least distinguish himself, within distinctively personal and deeply held notions of how things must be done, or what makes them right. "I am not an idealist," says John Doskicz, who is one of them. "I look at these decisions very practically and on what makes sense."
Doskicz' sense of pragmatism was born in the Army, which he joined in 1960 after growing up in Philadelphia as the son of an immigrant Polish tailor. He spent eight years in the service learning a variety of practical electronics, and now uses that trade to sell equipment and "fix anything" in his own small shop.
It is Reagan, Doskicz says, who really appeals to his own hopes for the country. "If you put a pair of blinders on and listen to Reagan, he sounds so damn good," Doskicz says, pacing between banks of components and waving his arms for the job of the argument. "And, get this, he believes it, too. He believes all that stuff. He believes in free enterprise. He believes in reducing regulation and taxes."
But the blunt instincts Doskicz lives by tell him Reagan is wrong. "I'd love to believe him but I can't," he says. "You just can't do all that stuff. Free enterprise? Hell, free enterprise in this country went out with the Pilgrims."
Doskicz is the kind of citizen who has kept an American flag flying in front of his house since the hostages were taken captive in Iran ("I'm on my second one now; the first looks like it went through a war"), but bought a Toyota car even though he worried it was unpatriotic. "My attitude is, give the Japanese their $3,000 and let the Arabs starve for the next five years," he proclaims. And that same approach has eliminated Reagan from his mind.
That leaves Carter and Anderson. And what he wants is a sign that one of them will have something to show for four years of work. "All the choices are 180 degrees," he says. You're either all black or all white -- one extreme or the other. I'm looking for a 55-45 guy, one who cuts through the middle and gets something done."
Larry Hyatt, 26, straddles between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in a personal political limbo. Like masses of voters, he sees the two established parties as static enclaves that haven't changed with the rapidly changing times. Hyatt himself has hardly stood still. The son of New Deal liberals in Queens, N.Y., he stuffed envelopes in 1968 for Eugene McCarthy and canvassed Williamstown, Mass., in 1972 for George McGovern. He voted for Carter in 1976. Like Betsey, he believed in the soft-spoken outsider from Georgia because of a deep, liberal impulse.
But over those years, Hyatt's confidence in traditional Democratic Party politics was eroding with each new experience. He left high school and teen age activism; graduated from Williams College in economics, worked two years for the U.S. Department of Energy, completed Harvard Business School, married, moved to Silver Spring and joined a major Washington consulting firm.
"That experience naturally is going to change some things," he says with a wry smile, accentuating the understatement.
"I had an attitude until about five years ago that government was the protector of all things good and private business was the protector of all things bad," he explains. "I worked two years for the Department of Energy and, needless to say, that attitude began to seem very simplistic. I realized that it just wasn't the case."
He sees the Democratic Party still trapped within that assumption, though: "The answer to the energy crisis is to take $8 billion and throw it at a problem. The answer to almost everything is just continued deficit spending."
Now he worries that the economy shaped by the Democrats is imposing burdens on the very people the party is supposed to represent: working Americans. Then there is the Carter record, which he perceives as riddled with ineptitude and conduct unbefitting a president. He begins to sound a little like Reagan.
But wait, stop, he says. He puts his head in his hands. How could Larry Hyatt vote for Ronald Reagan, a candidate he could scarcely stomach four years ago, a man who stands side by side with "some people I find very frightening?"
It comes down to this: the distinctions between the two parties seem to be breaking down. The Carter presidency accelerated that process, he believes, but it was already well underway. So now he sees Reagan not as an ideologue, but as a practical politician who may surround himself with people acceptable to Hyatt and other liberals. If Reagan would release a list of his cabinet members, and if they were moderate and impressive, "that would be a plus."
An issue of personal importance to him -- Israel's survival -- is no help in choosing between candidates and parties, he says. It is linked to his desire for a strong defense capability, but even on that highly charged issue, the Republican-Democratic debate has struck no responsive chords for him as he listens closely to both men.
Even as he speaks, Hyatt begins to feel uncomfortable about the prospect of voting for Reagan. "I would really like to have a reason to vote for Carter. I'm waiting for something. My basic impulses are still modified New Deal."
Across the county line, in Prince George's, 38-year-old Arthur Fox is saying much the same thing. Manager of a tungsten chemical plant and a longtime Democrat, Fox feels two tugs. He is becoming more conservative, although "I'm so ingrained in being a Democrat that I don't like to change. I have a big hangup about it. I'm looking for a reason to vote against Reagan. I guess I'm protecting Carter to myself."
Even if people like Fox and Hyatt fall back into the Democratic Party this year, they may move out for good in 1984 or whenever the Republicans produce a more moderate standardbearer. "Lately I've been talking to a lot of lifetime Democrats who would have very gladly voted for an attractive Republican candidate," Hyatt says. "Maybe an American version of Margaret Thatcher."
Dianne and Charles Betsey are watching from Silver Spring to see what the polls show about Anderson's support. Elizabeth Wright, 29, a Gaithersburg housewife, and Jim Shaut, a Glen Echo house remodeler, will be watching the same figures, balancing Anderson's strength against selected other happenings in the next 33 days.
All of them believe that much is at stake and all, in their own ways, will be waiting.