Virginia voters stayed home in record numbers in this year's statewide elections, reversing a 25-year trend of steadily rising turnouts among both whites and blacks that had been fueled by the voting rights gains of the 1960s.

Despite a historic Democratic sweep in which Lt. Gov.-elect L. Douglas Wilder became the first black candidate elected statewide, the percentage of black voter turnout fell below that of 1981, contradicting polls, including those of The Washington Post, that had indicated sharply higher numbers of black participation because of Wilder's candidacy.

Those same polls accurately predicted a lower white voter turnout, but politicians and pollsters said the falloff was still extraordinary, with only 53.8 percent of the total electorate casting ballots compared to 65 percent in 1981.

Political analysts generally blamed the lower white turnout on large numbers of Republicans who were unenthusiastic about their party's candidates and somewhat discouraged by polls that showed their ticket trailing.

"Many people thought that lack of enthusiasm would be offset because middle-class Republicans tend to vote -- they vote out of habit and they vote out of a sense of duty," said Thomas Morris, a University of Richmond political scientist. "One possible explanation is a good number of them didn't."

The number of voters had increased in each of the five previous gubernatorial elections, but this year 137,000 fewer votes were cast than in 1981.

This year's projected turnout was 1.6 million, but only about 1.3 million voters cast ballots. Black turnout may have been as low as 12 percent of the vote, down from 15 percent in 1981, according to preliminary estimates.

There is little agreement among analysts to explain the decline in black turnout.

Explanations range from bad weather that disrupted traditional get-out-the-vote activities in black communities to the Democratic Party's tactical decision to avoid any special appeals to blacks. Some Democrats said a direct black appeal could have boosted that turnout but would have risked igniting a white backlash.

"If Wilder had run a wild campaign of black power and all that, he would have screwed the whole thing up," said Benjamin J. Lambert III, a black legislator from Richmond. Wilder won, Lambert said, because "he didn't come out as a black candidate . . . . If you got out 100 percent of the black vote and didn't get any of the whites, you still wouldn't win.

Wilder, who ran a traditional campaign in which he avoided most racial issues, received about 46 percent of the white vote and virtually all of the black vote in his victory over Republican state Sen. John H. Chichester of Stafford County by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.

"It was one that never went the way it was predicted," said Lawrence Framme, a Richmond lawyer and chairman of the Democratic Joint Campaign Committee. Framme recalled that most observers initially said Wilder had no chance to win in conservative Virginia. "We were dealing with a first of a kind," said Framme. "Everybody thought they knew what would happen, but they didn't."

Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, which polled throughout the election, said in June that 59 percent of the respondents believed that a black could not be elected statewide.

David Doak, campaign consultant to Gov.-elect Gerald L. Baliles, said, "It's very difficult to poll on race and gender questions because people don't like to admit they're going to vote against someone for those reasons."

A poll by The Washington Post, completed five days before the election, indicated a Wilder lead of 24 percentage points, far higher than any other poll. The poll also suggested that black voter turnout would be a record high of 20 percent of those voting, compared to 15 percent in 1981.

Republicans sharply disputed the Post poll and complained after the election that it had had a demoralizing effect on the GOP. Some key Democrats last week said the Post poll sample was weighted too heavily toward black participation.

"The Post methodology used to predict the probable electorate missed the mark," said Paul Goldman, Wilder's campaign manager, who said the unusually high black voter turnout projected by the poll "was never, just never . . . in the realm of possibility."

Goldman said Wilder's game plan was to target moderate white voters and depend on a traditional black turnout rather than assume unusually high black participation. "People who base their campaigns on some extraordinary turnout are whistling in the wind. That should be icing on the cake," Goldman said.

Barry Sussman, The Post's director of polling, said, "What we got booted on was the low black turnout." He said he had estimated the black vote at 20 percent because of the enthusiasm shown by black respondents in the Post survey.

Sussman said a postelection review of the poll indicated that some white people interviewed in the poll may not have been candid.

"About 10 percent of the electorate may have felt social pressure to tell us they were supporting Wilder when they weren't," Sussman said.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said some black respondents in the Post poll may have misled interviewers.

With Wilder on the ticket, Sabato said, "Did it become a good citizenship thing to say, 'Of course I'm voting' "? Sabato said that blacks, like white voters, look to the top of the ticket for inspiration and were generally unethusiastic about the low-key campaign of Wilder and the other Democrats.

Sussman suggested that other factors could have been the stormy weather as well as the general lackluster nature of the campaign that failed to take advantage of potential voter enthusiam found in the poll.

At the same time, the Post poll closely gauged the landslide victory of Democratic Attorney General-elect Mary Sue Terry, who defeated Republican W.R. (Buster) O'Brien by 61 percent to 39 percent. The Post poll showed Terry with a 61 percent to 29 percent lead, with 10 percent undecided.

In the race for governor, Democrat Baliles defeated Republican Wyatt B. Durrette, 55 percent to 45 percent. The Post poll had shown Baliles leading 56 percent to 37 percent, with 7 percent undecided.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch published two polls conducted by its parent company, Media General Inc., that showed consistently close contests in all three statewide races until its final poll, which showed Terry opening a commanding lead.

Mason-Dixon polls published during the campaign largely indicated close races for all the candidates, with Baliles holding the largest margin -- 9 percentage points -- in the firm's final poll.