There are a million ways to lose an election in the big city. According to returns from the Nov. 3 balloting in the District, here are a few of them:

* Be endorsed by a member of the City Council. In the Ward 2 school board race, incumbent Alaire B. Rieffel had the blessings of the ward's City Council representative, John A. Wilson. Rieffel lost.

In Ward 3, candidate Mary Ann Keeffe was endorsed by that ward's council member, veteran Polly Shackleton. For years, the rule in the upscale western end of town has been that what Polly says, goes. Keeffe lost. (In fact, she might have been doubly damned, also having enjoyed the support of at-large Council Member Betty Ann Kane and a host of other prominent Democrats.)

In Ward 8, candidate Phinis Jones had the strong backing of Council Member Wilhelmina J. Rolark. In fact, Jones once worked for Rolark as an aide. Jones lost.

* Be endorsed by The Washington Post. The day after another Ward 8 candidate, Linda H. Moody, won The Post's endorsement, she appeared at a forum at Ballou High School with her opponents. The Post has long been distrusted by many residents of predominately black Far Southeast, and those feelings were highlighted at the forum. All the other candidates hammered at the endorsement and the suspicion that Moody, by virtue of the newspaper's endorsement, was a tool of some conspiracy by a white-dominated power structure to seize/maintain political control. (It is by now a familiar, though shopworn, theory.) Moody lost.

In fact, The Post's batting average was none too swift. The paper picked the school board winners in Ward 2 (R. David Hall) and Ward 3 (Wanda Washburn), but blew it in Ward 8 and failed to pick the winners of either of the two at-large seats contested last week. Two out of five.

* Make specific campaign promises. Of the winners, only Hall in Ward 2 laid out a fairly specific plan of action to follow once elected; he promised to seek support for the schools from large corporations.

Washburn campaigned mainly on her experience as a volunteer in the schools, versus Keeffe's more fully spelled-out plans to change the board's financial procedures. Ward 3 to Washburn.

Incumbent R. Calvin Lockridge campaigned strictly on experience and clout, versus more specific budget-related proposals from Moody and Jones. Ward 8 to Lockridge.

One at-large winner, incumbent Barbara Lett Simmons, also campaigned on experience -- as well as her status as a prominent local Democrat of long standing. The other winner, the Rev. David Eaton, outpolled everyone in the at-large contest mainly by issuing vague promises to represent the community and reminding audiences of his high-profile status as senior minister of All Souls Church. Two at-large losers, Manuel Lopez and Phyllis Young, were much more specific in their campaign pitches, concentrating, like many of the disappointed contenders, on the budget crisis in the city's schools. Close, but no cigar, for Lopez and Young.

The biggest losers of all, of course, were the folks who brought you the tuition tax credit initiative. They somehow managed to drive thousands of upper- and middle-class Washingtonians -- many of whom already have their children in private schools, and many more of whom would like to -- into voting against their self-interest. Twelve hundred dollars' worth of self interest.

The measure got crunched in every precinct. Every single one. Annihilated seems an insufficiently strong description of what happened to the tax credit. It was a display of reverse political acumen that made the mind reel. How did the backers of the tax credit manage to pull it off?

"We ran a lousy campaign," said Bill Keyes, chairman of the pro-initiative campaign. "Some of the people we worked with were under the impression that money wins campaigns, when people win them."

Keyes, who at first was bitter about the defeat, now says that the campaign spent too much money on television advertising, like two commercial spots featuring a pitch by actor Greg Morris for the tax credit, and not enough money on radio ads. "Far more people get their information from radio," Keyes said he now believes. (The anti-initiative campaign went heavy on the radio ads.)

Keyes says that his side also failed to realize that "a substantial number of people make up their minds when they get to the polling place." Indeed, on Election Day, the D.C. politicians who opposed the tax credit were arrayed at the polls, counseling voters to turn down the measure. The pro-initiative people were nowhere to be found.

But Keyes added that he has no current plans to apply the lessons in politics he learned last week. There is talk of some sort of modified tax credit initiative, he said, but for now it is only talk. "I think I'll take some time to get to know my wife and daughter," is how he put it.