What got them was the depth and the breadth of Jimmy Carter's defeat. $1So early -- barely 8 p.m. -- and he was already knocked out.

"It's almost like watching the Holmes-Ali fight," said accountant Benny Pitts, at the Sheraton Washington party last night given by the Democrats.

Pitts was one of an estimated 5,000 Carter supporters expected at the celebration that was intended to mark the victory of Carter in his race against Ronald Reagan for the White House. But while results were fast breaking, the party was slow starting and the cavernous ballroom held little knots of people in front of oversized television screens where network correspondents were projecting the growing landslide for Republican Ronald Reagan.

Four years earlier in Atlanta, some people remembered, it had been an entirely different scene with rock bands and lots of young people looking forward to a White House take-over by Jimmy Carter's Georgans. Last night it seemed a somewhat older crowd and, as a would-be reveler remarked, "a bar mitzvah orchestra." There were green-and-white balloons suspended overhead and a few green-and-white Carter-Mondale placards being waved above the crowd.

But it was generally a subdued mood. Brown Univesity sophomore Krista Weedman said that at school people couldn't believe Reagan would win. "I guess we're so removed from it all up there.When I came to Washington this week and stayed with friends and found how pessimistic they were, it immediately struck me, that Jimmy Carter could lose."

Jerry Doolittle, former Carter speechwriter, said he thought a heavy voter turnout would work for the Democrats, that people would get into the voting booth and, faced with the prospect of actually voting for Reagan or Anderson, would pull the lever for Carter. "H.L. Mencken was right when he said no man ever went broke overestimating the ignorance of the American public."

Doolittle was almost bitter. "I'm still alive, we're still at peace after four years, but every now and then we fall into error and vote for Republicans in this country. It's almost theological that there has to be a devil in order for there to be a God."

Georgetown University student Joel Wolfe looked downcast as he stood watching NBC project a Reagan sweep.

"A priest said to me today, 'Joel vote twice -- vote early and often.'"

By the time Carter arrived a full complement of cabinet and administration aides was there waiting for him on the platform.

"I promised you four years ago that I would never lie to you," Carter told the crowd, many of them choking back tears of disappointment. "So I can't stand here tonight and say it doesn't hurt."

When the Carters left the hotel a little later, people outside the ballroom stood behind ropes to get a glimpse. There was some applause, a few cheers and Carter smiled. "Real class," somebody said.

A little after 10 p.m. one dismayed Democrat said of Reagan's victory: "He finally won the Academy Award tonight."

Said another: "You know though, who the real winner is, don't you?" Then answering her own question, she added: "Ted Kennedy."