WASHINGTON — America's two major political parties are heading into the 1988 presidential race "almost dead even," with the Democrats' edge in voter numbers being offset by Republican patterns of higher turnout and loyalty to GOP candidates, according to an in-depth study of the electorate taken for Times Mirror Co.
The end result likely will be a November election "that is very close," analysts predicted.
Leaving aside the question of who might be the presidential nominees, there is both good news and bad news for each party in the massive public opinion survey conducted by The Gallup Organization. For example:
--President Reagan has put together a coalition of voter groups as diverse as Franklin D. Roosevelt's old New Deal alliance and attracted young people who "could become a GOP bedrock into the next century," the researchers said. But, while Reagan is the good news for Republicans, he also is the bad news.
"The Iran- contra affair has tarnished the Republican image as the party of competent management" and eroded the voters' good feelings about the state of the nation, the survey found.
--Also, the analysts continued, although white evangelicals have moved into the GOP and strengthened it, they also have split the party. "Religion itself divides the solidly Republican ranks more than any other political value," they observed.
--For Democrats, the good news is that they possess "a strong, unifying value--social justice--that seems to strike the right chord with the public today" and "probably will be the most important single issue in 1988."
Gallup, which defines social justice as "whether you believe government should help the disadvantaged and guarantee equality," said it is the one value that distinguishes the Democrats from the Republicans. Other good news for the Democrats is that the public views them "as better able to bring about the changes the country needs most." And the party "has substantially improved its image since 1984," in part because of Reagan's Iran- contra mess and "the fading memory of Jimmy Carter."
--But the bad news is that "Democrats have an age problem. . . . (They) can no longer claim to be the party of youth," the analysts reported. The party's biggest constituency, deeply rooted in F.D.R.'s New Deal, "is dying and not being replaced."
Beyond that, the party is "still hurt by good times and Americans' optimism"; it "continues to be perceived as having a problem selecting good candidates," and its voters are divided about whether tax dollars should be spent for the poor or for the middle class.
Commissioned by Times Mirror, which publishes the Los Angeles Times and owns several other newspapers, broadcasting stations and magazines, The Gallup Organization conducted face-to-face, hourlong interviews with 4,244 adults in more than 300 locales last April 25-May 10. Follow-up interviews were conducted Sept. 1-15 with 1,903 of those initially surveyed. The margin of error is 2%.
In analyzing the results, Gallup called it "the most exhaustive study of the American electorate ever undertaken."
The survey was directed by Gallup President Andrew Kohut in consultation with Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. The results were released Wednesday at the National Press Club here by Robert F. Erburu, chairman and chief executive officer of Times Mirror.
"What is most important about this study," Erburu told a Press Club luncheon, "is the unprecedented sweep and intimacy it brings to its portrayal of the American electorate. If you liken past surveys to black-and-white snapshots of the electorate, think of this study as not only being in color, but also in three dimensions."
Erburu announced that Times Mirror "will continue this study right up through Election Day, 1988," with several regional surveys plus another nationwide poll early next year. It is a very expensive undertaking, he noted, costing approximately $500,000 for the "base survey" and probably "double that" for the entire project.
Gallup ran the data through a computer almost every way imaginable and dissected the electorate into 11 distinct groups. Then it invented a new vocabulary to label the groups.
Republicans became not just Republicans, but "Enterprisers" and "Moralists," totaling 16% and 14%, respectively, of all likely voters in the population. Democrats were even more anatomized, splitting into " '60s Democrats" (11%), "New Dealers" (15%), "The Passive Poor" (6%) and "The Partisan Poor" (9%). Independents were subdivided into people who lean toward the Republican Party, "Upbeats" (9%) and "Disaffecteds" (7%); people who lean Democratic, "Followers" (4%) and "Seculars" (9%), and people who do not care who the President is and do not vote, "Bystanders" (0%).