For the moment, John Rother, a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, isn't replacing his car, which was stolen two weeks ago.

Rother works for Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), who is in a tough race for reelection. If Jarvits is defeated Tuesday, Rother and the rest of the Javits staff will be out of work.

"There wouldn't be any immediate crunch since the staff continues on the payroll until the end of the year," said Rother. "But no matter how confident you are of getting another job, it doesn't make sense to make a major purchase . . . until you know what you will be doing."

Rother typifies a sort of "election-year malaise" that Washington area businessmen say afflicts local consumers at this time of year -- whether or not their jobs depend on the outcome of a race this week.

Local businessmen say that many of the 1.6 million workers in the area postpone purchases until after the votes are in and the city has settled down again, even though only about 20,000 employes in Congress and the executive branch have jobs riding on the results. "There is a feeling . . . an uncertainty which begins at the top and goes all the way to the bottom when there is a change of presidents or the possibility of a change of President," said Leonard Kolodny, manager of the retail bureau of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Kolodny said this insecurity seems to infect those who work directly for the government, those who work for companies that do government business, and those who have neighbors, family or friends involved.

"This is in keeping with what we know about consumer behavior," said Thomas Juster, director of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. "People with secure jobs become pessimistic and retrench [and put off purchases] when they observe others having economic trouble and employment problems."

"They lose very little by adopting a more cautious stance, so they may postpone for a while," Juster said. The decision, he said, can be either a conscious one or instinctive.

Washington psychologist Melvin A. Gravitz sees the election-year malaise as the flip side of boom times, when confident consumers go on spending binges. "We all try to be like other people," he said, "so when you go shopping with a neighbor and he buys something, you probably will buy something, too. But if you go shopping and the neighbor doesn't buy anything [because he is worried about his job], you probably won't either."

The election affects consumer decisions in other ways, too. Some area residents focus so much energy and attention on the campaign that they do less shopping than they would normally. Others view the election as a benchmark for decisions -- some people decide they will organize their lives after Nov. 4, just as others decide to do it on New Year's Day. t

For example, Catherine East, a retired government worker, had planned to make some improvements this fall on her home, after paying off the mortgage in July. But instead she has put all of her energy into working for John Anderson.

"After the election, I will get some things done at home," she said.

Similarly, Elizabeth Nash, a legislative aide to Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.), said she wants to renovate the kitchen in her Arlington home, but hasn't had the time to research plans for it because of her involvement in Magnuson's tough reelection fight.

Noreen and Jim Lyday normally take a big trip in the fall, but not this year. "We thought about going away this fall, but we didn't, and finally we decided we didn't want to miss the last two weeks of the election," said Mrs. Lyday.

"This town lives by elections. You miss what tilted what and the details of how it happened [if you are away]. I like to be here when it is happening."

Others are in the opposite situation. "I couldn't spend any money in Washington because I haven't been there," said George V. Cunningham, administrative aide to Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) Cunningham, who has been in South Dakota for more than two months working on the campaign, said he made some purchases there: "A winter coat, shoes, sweaters and several pairs of pants."

Still others don't have the money to spend. Bob Woodrum estimates that he spent about $3,000 of his own money for travel, food and lodging two years ago when he worked for the unsuccessful campaign of Sen. Wendell R. Anderson (D-Minn.) Though Woodrum's job is threatened again this year -- he is now director of public affairs for the Office of Personnel Management -- he hasn't had the same problem this time.

"All of those reasons apply [to me]," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) through an aide. "Basically, when people don't know if they will be elected, they don't buy anything." Leahy, who is in a close race for reelection, said he has postponed buying any new clothes until later.

For Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.), it's a matter of time, or the lack of it. "I just have not had time to purchase clothing or any other consumer goods outside of food because of the heavy campaign schedule which takes almost all my time and my wife's time," he said before leaving for a campaign rally.

Merchants say the phenomenon is peculiar to the Washington area, which has more residents with jobs at stake in the general election than any other part of the country. They say the trend is most evident in a presidential election year when the race is particularly close.

"Like this year," said William D. McDonald, vice president of marketing for Woodward & Lothrop, which has researched the trend more than any other local company.

Neither the Greater Washington Board of Trade nor any individual businessman contacted would say how much sales have been affected this fall. One reason is the retailers' own uncertainty about how big a role the election plays compared with other factors, such as President Carter's credit restrictions, unseasonably warm weather and continued inflation.

Nevertheless, based on their experience in previous presidential election years in Washington, many businessmen still contend that sales would be better this year if they didn't have the added burden of election-year malaise.

Asked to offer some yardstick of the malaise impact, McDonald of Woodward & Lothrop said that there could be as much as a five-percentage-point spread in retail sales, from the low point of the fall season to the high point when sales rebound after the election.

"And a five-point shuffle can be significant for large retailers," McDonald said. He added that companies never recover all of the sales they lose because of election-year uncertainty.

For example, he said, "Suppose your sales increase at the rate of 10 percent a month from January to August, when there is a political convention. pThen the sales level out and take a slight downturn in terms of sales growth. From 10 percent, they may drop to 8 percent during a normal election year. But during close elections, like this year, they may drop to 6 percent.

"After the election in November, the sales will go back to maybe 11 percent . . . but it won't go back high enough to recapture all you lost in September and October," McDonald said.

Although election jitters have been blamed routinely for the soft sales in the past, businessmen have only recently attempted to define the pattern. "We are trying to collect more information about this, so we can make better decisions," McDonald said.

Based on what they do know, retailers take a variety of steps during election years in anticipation of the sluggish season.

"We plan inventories a little more cautiously during an election-year," said W. C. Detwiler, president of Garfinckel's. The planning is designed to match store merchandise more closely with what consumers are apt to buy.

Other stores restrict their buyers' allowances. "We hold them accountable for what they buy and why . . . to a greater degree than normal," said McDonald.

The stores also experiment less. "In a good loose fashion season, you may find some merchandise in the store that is more [exotic] than the average customer might buy," McDonald said. "[But] at times like this, you are more conservative . . . You emphasize the classics."