Politics is a game of winners and losers, in which the only certainty is that the losers will outnumber the winners.So it has always been and so it will be again in 1980. Of the three Democrats and seven Republicans seeking the presidency, nine will wind up losers and only one a winner.

And that will be the case in the elections for 13 governorships, for 34 Senate seats, for 435 House seats -- and all the other contests on the ballot this year.

But there is another, more important, sense in which losers have outnumbered winners in American politics in recent years. From the perspective of one who covered his first presidential campaign in 1960, the last 20 years have been hard on voters and candidates alike; hard on our government; hard on our parties; hard on the system. Five times in that period we have changed presidents -- three times by voting out the "in" party, once by assassination, once by forced resignation. It has been a time of instability in the leading office in the Republic, and a time of extraordinary upheaval in the Congress as well. Of the 100 senators serving in 1960, only 15 are there today; of the 435 representatives, only 41 remain.

The restless searching for leadership reflected in these statistics reflects a growing public dissatisfaction with the performance of government. When the average citizen in 1958 was asked how often he or she though one could trust the government to do what is right, 73 percent said "most or all of the time." Asked the same question 20 years later, 68 percent said "none of the time or only some of the time."

The disillusionment with politics is measured by the disaffection from both parties. In 1960, 46 percent of the people called themselves Democrats; today, 43 percent do. For Republicans, the decline has been from 28 percent to 22 percent.

But the most chilling measure of disenchantment with politics was the decline in voter turnout -- from 58.5 percent of the potential in 1960 to 49.6 perent in 1976. If people can express their view by not voting, the American people have been telling politicians have been selling.

All this makes the story of Peggy Klein of Oskaloosa, Iowa, particularly unusual -- and perhaps particularly signifcant. She is the farm family grandmother interviewed by Dave Brown of the Des Moines Tribune last month, on of thousands of Iowans who had attended their first political party caucus the night before.

Klein had done a little volunteer work for the Democrats in Mahaska County, but it was only this year -- in response to a phone call from Margaret Collision, a longtime Democratic activist, that she took her first step into party politics.

"It's not that I wanted to be an active politician," she told the Tribune reporter after she had gone to the Collison home, cast her preference vote for President Carter, joined in the discussion, helped slice some brownies and then been elected to the county Democratic committee on committees. "I just thought it was a privilege."

A privilege? When was the last time you heard anyone say it is a privilege to be part of party politics?

Comments like that made Ed Campbell and Steve Roberts almost as happy with the Iowa caucus results as Jimmy Carter and George Bush were. Campbell, the state Democratic chairman, and Roberts, his Republican counterpart, were flabbergasted by the turnout in the caucuses -- almost three times as many Democratic participants as in 1976, and five times as many Republicans -- 200,000 people in all.

"It was a tremendous boost for both political parties," Roberts enthused. "The caucus process is more than just voting. It gets people involved, and it whets their opportunity for more."

"In a caucus system," Campbell echoed, "people really have to go out and work to put it together with other people. And once they've done that, you've got a helluva nucleus for the party."

Professional politicians have always preferred caucuses to primaries for the simple reason that they are more easily controlled. The unexpected turnout had some undesired results. The Linn County (Cedar Rapids) Republican chairman left his caucus early to handle arrangements for the countywide vote count, and was left off the list of delegates elected to the county convention.

But despite such incidents, there was a real sense, when the campaign left Iowa last month, that, as Ed Campbell said, "after years of seeing the two-party system eroding, I think we're coming back. After years of voter apathy, party apathy, candidate apathy, I think people felt a sense of commitment."

One caucus does not a trend make, and the odds are overwhelming that it will take much more than one election year even to begin the rehabilitation of the political parties and the reinvigoration of American politics and government. The decline, after all, has been a generation-long.

But if I were to crawl out on a limb even shakier than guessing the name of the presidential winner, it would be to hazard the guess that 1980 may, at long last, mark a reversal of those two decades of decay.

If that should happen to prove right, it will be extraordinary. The forces of fragmentation in our politics are dominant. The way in which we select our presidents almost guarantees that the process of fragmentation will continue. The problems of the presidential selection system are symptomatic of the problems afflicting our politics.

First, there are too many primaries. Now, presidential primaries have many useful features. They test a candidate's ability to assemble a portable political organization, adaptable to the requirements of widely different settings and cultures, they force the candidate to address issues unfamiliar to his home state or region, they test his emotional and physical stamina, they allow an unknown to become known, and they enable a qualified contender to prove his qualifications.

It is argued -- and fairly -- that if there had been no West Virginia primary in 1960 for John Kennedy to prove that Protestants would vote for a Roman Catholic, he could not have been nominated or elected. But it is worth noting that in 1960, Kennedy ran in four contested primaries. Contrast that with the 37 primaries awaiting the 1980 hopefuls, and you have a measure of the extent to which the system has been revolutionized.

The consequences of that change are enormous. Under the old system, running for president involved taking a few months off from your public office, in the election year, to present your credentials largely to political peers -- other officeholders, party leaders, leaders of allied interest groups -- and to persuade them that you were best qualified to carry the party banner. Primary victories could be cited as evidence of these credentials, but even Kennedy was finally nominated because Dick Daley, David Lawrence, Walter Reuther and their counterparts thought he had "the right stuff."

In today's system, by contrast, the most sensible thing to do if you want to be president is to rid yourself of public office and spend two years (in the case of Jimmy Carter or George Bush) or up to six years (in the case of Ronald Reagan) in a state of declared or undeclared candidacy. You don't try to persuade the professionals of your party; you concentrate on the amateurs, particularly those in early primary states, and you woo them, as Carter and Bush did, a living room at a time.

This wearisome, time-consuming process discourages all but the most ambitious from seeking the presidency. It forces those who do compete to enlist a staff of enthusiastic young workers, prepared to make a similar sacrifice of job, time and family, and these young people tend to become the core of the winner's White House staff, whether or not they possess the governmental skills and experience such posts demand.

Most of all, this system of presidential selection -- dominated by the primaries -- forces each candidate to behave as if he were a political party of one, raising his own funds, recruiting his own volunteers, hiring his own pollsters and media advisers, framing his own program and platform. So when he comes to office, he tends to think of himself as a successful, i individual political entrepreneur -- not the head of a party which has collectively chosen him as its champion.

In office he finds that even with "Ruffles and Flourishes," there is precisou little a president can accomplish by his own devices, and thus his personal frustration is added to the growing sum of public frustrations with this kind of no-win politics.

The fragmentation that results from too many primaries is closely linked to a second problem in today's presidential politics -- too much dependence on television. The primaries are grist for television's mill -- a weekly Tuesday night series, with a built-in plot line, and a pair of guaranteed winners at the summer conventions, which have become every bit as much television extravaganzas as the Super Bowl.

Television is the prime medium of communication, and, at its best, it can be magnificent. But it is a highly personalistic medium and it demands action. The politics of negotiation, addommodation and compromise -- the politcs of consensus-building -- is not good television. Far better is the drama of conflict and resolution provided by the clash of personalities in the primaries and the pageant of harmony at the convention hall.

It is no conspiracy -- but neither is it a coincidence -- that presidential politics has adapted to the demands of the television medium in the last two decades. The conventions were first seen by a national audience in 1952; that was the last year either of them went beyond a single presidential ballot. Since then, the role of the convention as a place for assembling intra-party coalitions stable enough to gain an electoral majority and sustain a government has been subordinated to the convention as the launching place for the television-dominated general election campaign.

It is neither fair nor accurate to suggest that television has drained the "issues" or the policy content from the presidential contests; on the contrary, television debates in 1960 and 1976 helped focus the issues. But, as television journalists are the first to point out, the format of television news forces both candidates and reporters to compress their messages, to oversimplify and to exaggerate. What is true of television news is even more true of television advertising.

Thus, what viewers tend to see in television politics are snippets of thought and personality -- a fragmentation of the complex reality which provides a fragile basis for the voting decision.

The third kind of fragmentation that characterizes today's presidential politics is a fragmentation of effort. Instead of the campaign being a collective enterprise, centered on the party and all its candidates and workers, it tends to be an individual enterprise of the nominee's personal campaign committee and his personal cadre of workers.

As already noted, this tendency has become pervasive in American politics over the last 20 years, and is encouraged by the lengthy period of the nomination struggle. But, ironically, Congress furthered the fragmentation of effort by deciding to allocate public funds for the presidential general election campaigns, not to the two major parties, but to the nominees themselves and their personal campaign committees.

While the parties are allowed to contribute an additional sum in their nominees' effort, the first application of the new law in 1976 found the presidential campaign managers so fearful of exceeding the spending limits or running short of television funds that they actively discouraged the establishment of local headquarters, where grass-roots party workers had traditionally been able to participate in the presidential campaigning. The result, ironically, was to discourage participation and increase the general public sense that ordinary citizens had not part in -- no stake in -- the political game.

The fragmentation I have been describing in the presidential selection process is part of a larger -- indeed pervasive -- fragmentation of American politics. It involves, importantly, the dispersal and decentralization of decision-making authority within the Congress, the proliferation of interest groups and the focus on single-issue causes -- all important trends in themselves and important in the breakdown of effective government we have witnessed over the last generation.

In the face of all this, it must seem Polyannaish to talk about 1980 as a year of possible regeneration of health and structure in our political system.None of the basic forces that have led to the fragmentation of our politics has disappeared; none is even abating in influence.

But there are certain small signs that a counteraction is beginning. The politicans and the public alike are beginning to recognize that the disillusionment with government is not unconnceted with the changes we have made in the way we choose our presidents.

You can see the shift in the presidential candidates themselves. By choice or by necessity, they identified themselves far more closely with their party than was the fashion in most recent elections.

Jimmy Carter is not the self-proclaimed "outsider," as he runs for reelection, that he was in 1976. Faced with a serious challenge last fall from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy -- who is linked by family and 17 years of Senate service to many of the major constituencies of the Democratic Party -- the president sought to align himself with many of the traditional power centers of the party.

Using the leverage of the White House, Carter enlisted Democratic governors and mayors, members of Congress, party officials and the leaders of all the allied interest groups -- educators, unionists, minorities -- that he could persuade to join what then looked like an uphill fight. His campaign is being run not by a young Georgia iconoclast, Hamilton Jordan, but by that ultimate insider and establishmentarian, Bob Strauss.

Implicit in these alliances is the understanding that Carter, if granted a second term, will govern as part and parcel of that traditional Democratic coalition -- not as the stranger in town which he often seemed to prefer to be in the past three years.

It goes without saying that Kennedy would also be that kind of president, operating within the institutional framework of his party, as he has done for all the time since he began his Senate service with a courtesy call on the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, James O. Eastland of Mississippi.

The leading Republican contenders are also "insiders," to a greater or lesser degree. Bush, the surprise winner in Iowa, is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who became something of a hero to the "regulars" by his leadership of the party in the traumatic Watergate period.Howard H. Baker Jr. is the Republican leader in the Senate, a skilled practitioner of consensus politics within the GOP and a man who dots his campaign speeches with frequent statements like, "I am a politican, and I think it is an honorable calling."

Ronald Reagan still styles himself a "citizen-politician," as he did when he was first leaving the acting profession to run for governor of California in 1966. But with the passage of years, Reagan has become more "politican" and less "citizen" in his outlook. His campaign is being guided by men like John Sears and Ed Meese -- insiders in both politics and government, on a continuing basis.

Beyond the level of personalities, there are signs of institutional recovery for the parties -- the key agencies, in my view, for any serious effort to cure the fragmentation that has afflicted our politics in the past generation.

The role of the parties in both the nominating and election process has been weakened by the proliferation of primaries by campaign finance changes, and by the internal "reforms" in Congress and the political conventions. Now there is evidence that some of those "reforms" are being reconsidered, and changes are being made to bring the parties back into their needed political and governmental role.

Congress last year amended the campaign finance law to encourage a resumption of traditional political party activities on behalf of the presidential ticket. Expenditures on bumper stickers, buttons, handbills, posters, brochures, yard signs and such were exempted from the contribution limits. So were voter registration and get-out-the-vot activities. It was made legal, in short, for local people to join the presidential campaign through local party headquarters and activities.

It was stupid to discourage such activities in the first place, but it is at least a small victory for common sense and healthy politics to have them restored.

In a similar category is the decision by the Democratic Party this time around to set aside 10 percent of the seats and votes in the convention for party officers and elected Democratic officials. That, too, is just common sense. To have a chance to govern effectively, any Democratic president is going to need the good will and support of the elected officials of his party -- and of the party leaders. So why not bring them into convention hall and make them part of the process of choosing the nominee?

It must seem obvious, but remember, please, that it was only eight years ago that the "reformers" in the Democratic party counted it a victory for democracy that the mayor of the second-largest city, the key to carrying a vital swing state, was denied the seat in a convention hall which the voters of Chicago had given him.

The Democrats are starting to recover from such costly exercises in abstract virtue -- another small victory for common sense and good politics. i

The Republicans, who never indulged themselves in such conceits, are attempting in 1980 something rarely seen in recent years -- an integrated, well-designed and amply financed effort to persuade the voters to support not jut individual Republican candidates, but the Republican Party as such. With $5 million (mainly raised from thousands of small contributors) the Republicans have launched a television advertising campaign (what else?) nine months in advance of the election and aimed at sharpening public awareness of the policy differences between Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

The campaign is explicitly modeled on that of the British Conservative party in the year preceding Maragret Thatcher's victory. And it is accompanied by another import from Britain -- the effort to make the debate on the budget in Congress (as in Parliament) the occasion for a sharp, avowedly partisan delineation of the differing economic, tax, defense and welfare programs of the two parties.

America does not need or want to change to the parliamentary system; it would ill suit a country as diverse and large as ours. But the possibility that the strategy of a relatively disciplined British parliamentary party might be adapted by an American party is extraordinary evidence -- given the long decay of parties here -- that there yet remains a nugget of faith that voters might be persuaded to think of an election in broader terms than the random choice -- as in a Chinese restaurant -- of attractive dishes (or candidates) from column A or columnn B.

These are straws in the wind -- and the wind could easily shift and blow them away. But those 200,000 people who came to the party caucuses in Iowa were not figments of the imagination. They were real people, doing something, in massive numbers, that few of them had done before. They were not just citizens going to the polling place to express in privacy their judgment on individual candidates.

They were partisans joining, as a group, to help their party pick its nominee; and as Peggy Klein, the Iowa grandmother, said, for that night at least, they considered it "a privilege" to behave like -- dare one say it -- party politicians.

And that is as good a piece of political news as I have come across in 20 years.