f the 1980 election was a political earthquake, the political scientists cannot find the evidence on their seismographs.
Several of the pollsters who worked in the campaigns came to the American Political Science Association convention here today and Thursday to point them in the right direction.
Samuel L. Popkin, who worked on Jimmy Carter's polls, called the election "a sea change." Richard Wirthlin, chief pollster for President Reagan, said it was "a political Mount St. Helen's."
But the political scientists were not impressed. "I'd say it was more of a blip," said Nelson Polsby of the University of California-Berkeley.
Several major papers analyzing and interpreting last November's voting were delivered here and, as James Stimson of Florida State University said at the end of one panel where the results were discussed, "I'm struck by the lack of evidence of the realignment everyone talks about on the news. There just seems to be nothing out there."
Ever since Reagan made Carter the first elected president since Herbert Hoover to fail in a second-term bid, some commentators have been talking of 1980 as the start of a new political era, where Republicans might be as dominant as Democrats were for the four decades following Franklin D. Roosevelt's election. Political scientists call such major shifts realignments, and say they have occurred only a few times in U.S. history.
The GOP's capture of the Senate after a 26-year hiatus and the sharp gains in the House pointed in that same direction, these analysts said.
But their suppositions are not supported by the "experts" here, who tend to view the 1980 election much more as a critical verdict against Carter's handling of the presidency than as a mandate for the kind of conservative policies Reagan has been putting into place in the past eight months.
In a characteristic comment, Arthur H. Miller of the University of Michigan said that "It is rather amazing that Ronald Reagan has been able to change so much government policy on the basis of so narrow a victory. If realignment comes, it will be not so much a response to public demand as a political elite grabbing the opportunity presented by the electoral failure of the opposition . . . . It will be due solely to public ratification of policy changes after they were implemented."
Arthur Miller's view was slightly challenged by his Michigan colleague, Warren E. Miller, who said that policy disagreements with the Carter administration on such issues as national defense spending and the overall scale of government may, in some respects, have been as important as fault-finding with Carter's performance.
Warren Miller said, "We believe that Ronald Reagan did become president with a base of support centered on majoritarian preferences for a conservative change in the direction of federal policy, changes in the direction of, if not the magnitude of, those he is implementing."
But he also noted that despite his electoral-college landslide, Reagan out-polled the 1976 loser, Gerald R. Ford, "by a scant 2 percentage points." He said one had to "search" the returns "for evidence that 1980 was in any way remarkably different from 1976, either as a watershed election reflecting a new partisan alignment or as the result of a surge of new conservatism."
Both Millers and many of the others who delivered papers here based their research on a series of voter interviews conducted between January and November, 1980, by the University of Michigan Center for Political Studies. Similar studies by that same organization going back to the 1952 election constitute the basic data on which most contemporary American voting analysts rely.
Among the reasons for skepticism on a major political realignment cited by various professors analyzing the election data here were these:
There was little positive support for Reagan. According to Arthur Miller and his co-author, Martin P. Wattenberg, "Reagan was the least popular candidate elected to the presidency" since the voting studies began in 1952. "Of all the candidates prior to 1980, only George McGovern and Barry Goldwater, each the victim of a landslide vote, had received lower ratings than did Ronald Reagan."
What saved Reagan, they say, was that Carter looked even worse to the voters.
The election-year studies showed no surge in conservatism. Self-described conservatives out-numbered self-described liberals by almost exactly the same margin they did in 1976 or 1972. There was an increase of support for bigger defense spending and for trimming back big government, but on many of the social issues where Reagan espoused a conservative position, public opinion has been moving in a liberal direction.
There was no upsurge in Republican Party identification. Figures cited by Gregory B. Markus of Michigan indicate a slight decline in the number of Republican-identifiers from February to October, 1980, and a continuing big Democratic advantage. Wirthlin confirmed these figures but said that since election day, Republicans have drawn virtually even with the Democrats.
There is disagreement among the scholars about how much of a "policy mandate" can be read into the returns. Markus said any such mandate had to be considered "relatively minor," because there was widespread uncertainty among the voters on where the candidates stood on such issues as defense spending, detente and the trade-off between inflation and unemployment.
Arthur Miller gave somewhat greater weight to policy voting in 1980, but even Warren Miller, who gave it the most emphasis, said, "If basic changes take place in American politics as a consequence of the Reagan administration, it will be a tribute to the effective leadership of that administration as much as the natural or inevitable outcome of prior change that had preceded and produced the election of 1980."