When a football team battles desperately for four quarters and is subdued in the final minutes by a score of 43 to 35, a fair-minded spectator applauds both victor and vanquished and says he enjoyed the closeness of a spirited contest.

If both teams were understaffed because half their players missed the bus, the observer might wonder, "What would have happened if both had been at full strength?"

But in politics, 43 to 35 is not a close contest. It is a landslide. Gov. Reagan got 43 million votes to President Carter's 35 million, and our electoral system accentuated the margin to give it the appearance of a landslide.

In a front-page story yesterday, staff writer Robert G. Kaiser discussed public opinion polls and the reasons they failed to predict the Reagan landslide. But when I finished reading the article, it did not appear to me that the polls had been gross failures.

The pollsters have always warned that in 19 polls out of 20 they will have a margin of error of three or four percentage points. In 1 out of 20, their error will be even greater.

This year, many polls forecast a Reagan victory. Some said he'd win in a close race, some saw a wider margin, and some were actually within 3 points of the true figures. Is this really such a poor job of polling? Is it a basis for speaking of the "landslide" as if it had been the biggest upset since David killed Goliath?

The election produced two fascinating but generally ignored statistics.

1: Almost 42 million people voted against Reagan, making his 43 million votes somewhat less impressive than the word "landslide" indicates.

2: About 46 percent of us refused to vote. The Republican and Democratic teams both the Lord knows what the outcome might have been if everybody had done his civic duty and voted.

It should not go unnoticed that the people who stayed at home because neither Carter nor Reagan suited them and Anderson "didn't have a chance" were flat-out wrong. Anderson got about 5.5 million of the votes that were cast. If he had gotten the votes of a mere 55 percent of the 72 million protesters who stayed at home, he'd have whipped Reagan.

If you enjoy savoring the landslide, please do not permit my statistics to interfere with your pleasure. However, I must say I saw no great surprise in the election returns.

In recent years, there has been a steady and visible drift to the right in this country. My mail indicates that the most potent impetus for it has been the average voter's pocketbook interest.

"Soak the rich" was once a popular formula for balancing government budgets.

However, as inflation intensified, the soak-the-rich thesis was rejected by an increasing number of newly "rich" voters. In some years their inflated salaries kept up with inflated prices. In some years their inflated salaries didn't. But in every year their inflated salaries pushed them into higher tax brackets. And as taxes took away a steadily larger portion of their incomes, people began to vote against the phony prosperity that was driving them into debt. This year, the working "rich" became a majority.

What's so surprising about that?

The only thing that surprised me was that the Democrats weren't smart enough to recognize the changing mood of the electorate.

But despite their lack of acumen, the Democrats will be back in power some day. Perhaps soon.

The knee-jerk reaction of the Democratic Party is that all new problems require new government programs. The knee-jerk reation of the Republican Party is that government programs are the cause of problems, not the solution to them. If Reagan keeps faith with his party's conservative stance, the government will soon begin to shrink, and those with an opposite political bias will begin to protest.

In due course, millions of people with special axes to grind will become so dissatisfied with the Small Government Republicans give them that they'll swing their support back to the Democratic Big Brother.And after a while, this again will give the majority reason to protest against the cost of Big Government, and again will give the country the opportunity to go through the same tiresome cycle.

Having ridden this roller coaster before, I am no longer surprised by the route it follows. It runs on tracks, and its course is predictable.