Four top Democratic Party pollsters, armed with what they described as surprising new survey results, yesterday sounded a clarion call for Democratic candidates in 1982 saying it's safe to start attacking the president.
While President Reagan's personal popularity still remains solid, the pollsters found, his political popularity is an altogether different commodity, and it eroded substantially in his first year in office. They also found that the concern of most voters has shifted to issues on which they most trust the Democrats.
The survey, an in-person interview of 1,265 registered voters taken in late November and early December, shows that while the majority of voters still like Reagan, 41 percent of those who say they like him nevertheless disapprove of his policies.
"He may may be viewed as likable and genial and nice, but that doesn't translate into political popularity," Patrick H. Caddell, who conducted the poll in concert with Peter Hart, William R. Hamilton and Hugh Schwartz, said at a news conference yesterday at Democratic National Committee headquarters.
The story told by the numbers was not lost on DNC Chairman Charles Manatt, who vowed, "We will fight back now. We learned a good lesson--a terrible lesson--in 1980 relative to complacency."
Just how the Democrats will fight, Manatt is not yet prepared to say, but the poll results suggested plenty of targets of opportunity. They show that the agenda of issues that most concern the electorate has shifted sharply in the past year, in a direction that favors Democrats.
Asked to select from a list of 26 pressing national issues, the voters placed "reducing unemployment" at the top, followed by "protecting Social Security" and "keeping world peace." In each of these, the perception of voters is that Democrats are better able to cope with the problem than the Republicans.
Conversely, in 1980, the issues of greatest concern to the electorate were inflation, government spending and national defense, all considered by the voters to be matters that Republicans handle more effectively.
The poll found pessimism rampant, with 57 percent of those interviewed saying they thought the nation was "off on the wrong track" and 32 percent saying they thought it was moving "in the right direction."
It also found substantial skepticism toward further federal budget cuts. By 64 to 25 percent, voters said that any additional budget cuts would be necessary because of overly generous tax breaks for the wealthy, and by 62 to 26 percent, the voters believe that Reagan's cuts will mean an increase in local property taxes.
While the results were generally upbeat for Democrats, the pollsters cautioned that there remains a substantial hope that the president will succeed. As for their advice to Democrats to go on the attack, they tempered it with an admonition:
"You don't savage a sitting president," said Caddell. "That almost always backfires. But you do hold him responsible for his programs."