American voters, in their selection of a president, are about to do what they did in 1976 and in 1980: they are reacting to the character and performance of the incumbent in making their choice; they want what they haven't got.

Now, voters are three times as concerned with domestic political issues as they are with foreign affairs or other matters. Extensive national soundings indicate that American voters want a president who will do something about unemployment, stabilize taxes and help the nation's poor and elderly. In addition, a president is prefered who will "take care of the United States first" before other countries. President Reagan is not widely regarded as a chief executive who has done anything positive about unemployment or given help and comfort to the poor and elderly. Americans want a president who will go about those tasks.

The personal and philosophical qualities that 1983 voters prize in a president are defined best by their perceived absence in the incumbent. Wanted now is a leader who "treats all people, all races equally," "doesn't favor the rich," "helps the middle class" and is compassionate and understanding.

This represents no significant change from voters' reactions in the last two elections. Recall in 1976, after Vietnam-Johnson-Watergate-Nixon, an unknown and inexperienced Jimmy Carter was able to elevate his national political virginity into high electoral virtue. In 1980, Ronald Reagan's ideological tenacity seemed, when contrasted with Carter's swerves and curves, attractively bulldoggish rather than bull-headed.

In both those campaigns, the challengers benefited from simply not being the incumbent, and the incumbents revealed their nervousness by concentrating time and resources on making the challenger the campaign's only issue.

An obvious difference between the next election and the last lies in the dominant economic issues. Inflation, the 1980 issue, was seen as a problem that the government causes. That helped the GOP. Unemployment is viewed as a problem that government can do something to cure, which should help the challenger Democrats.

Trailing in importance to American voters in the spring of 1983 are good "moral" character and strength and decisiveness. These are what the pollsters call "threshold" issues, meaning that their presence alone will not win votes, but that their obvious absence would mean the rejection of the candidate. International issues--defense and controlling nuclear arms--were the last mentioned by voters.

Of course, as my old precinct committeewoman used to say, a day is a lifetime in politics. Candidates quit and events intervene. But the qualities voters sought in their next presidents in 1975 and 1979 didn't change that much in a year. Every candidate, next year, will emphasize his commitment to fairness; you can bet on it.