WHAT DO Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson and eight other American presidents have in common?

Each received less than a majority of the votes cast in the election which elevated him into the White House.

What do all presidents have in common?

None has ever received the votes of a majority of the adult population living in the United States at the time of his election.

It is in the context of these two question that the U.S. Senate should consider Sen. Birch Bayh's constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college and substitute direct presidential elections.

The American republic has survived quite nicely, thank you, despite the electoral college, occasional minority presidencies and even at least one president (Rutherford B. Hayes) who was elected while receiving fewer popular votes than his opponent.

It is by no means clear that the American polity would be nearly so healthy if the electoral college were abolished, especially in this, the television age.

The arguments for direct elections and Sen. Bayh's amendment are simple, clear and persuasive:

Why should every person's vote not be equal, and what better way to guarantee that equality than through direct elections?

How more efficaciously can the country protect itself against the possibility of electing a president who receives fewer votes than his opposition to abolish the electoral college which makes such an outcome possible?

Should not American democracy protect itself from the demagogue - the George Wallace who succeeds - who might invalidate the vote of the people and throw an election into the House of Representatives?

Very simple, clear, persuasive. Not, however, compelling.

For abolishing the electoral college might well bring about greater equality and more direct democracy, but it would likely do so at the expense of American political stability.

The case for keeping the electoral college is not nearly so clear and simple, but it is, in the end, more persuasive and compelling.

The case for retention of the electoral college rests upon four words - pluralism, federalism, participation and manipulation.

Pluralism - The success of the American political experiment has always rested on a delicate balancing of the will of the majority with the rights and needs of minorities. The electoral college has served to protect the latter.

American blacks, for instance, are, in the aggregate, only a small part of the total national eligible vote, and this might be ignored in a politician's national political calculations. Blacks, however, account for nearly half the popular vote in almost every southern state, nearly 80 percent of the vote in the District of Columbia and a substantial portion of the vote in every northeastern urban state. In the state-by-state competition for electoral votes, no politician can afford to bypass the black vote.

Farmers comprise an even smaller percentage of the population than blacks, but they hold the key to a critical set of midwestern and western electoral votes. A politician ignores them at his peril.

Hispanic Americans, urban dwellers, rural dwellers, union members, small businessmen, industrialists, environmentalist and other groups of Americans might see their concerns go unaddressed were presidential elections one giant political free-for-all. What insures that the needs and desires of significant minorities will be taken into account is the one aspect of the American political system that forces national candidates to complete for votes on the state and local levels - the electoral college.

Federalism - Until recently, federalism was a reason many liberals gave for opposing the electoral college. The way, they said, to rid the nation of states' rights obstructionism on such issues as civil rights was to reduce the power of the states by abolishing the electoral college.

More recently, even liberals have come to see that a burgeoning, bureaucratic, all-too-powerful and perhaps all-too-cumbersome federal government is not an unmixed blessing. Perhaps more pertinently, they have come to see that state and local governments are sources for innovation - that only state and local government can ban nuclear power, establish off-track betting, create universal voter registration, provide for neighborhood government or experiment with varying educational modes. They serve not only as a potential social and political laboratory, but also as a bulwark against unwarranted concentration of political power.

Those who drew up the Constitution did not perhaps, envision warrantless wiretaps, "enemies lists" or other perversions of presidential power. They did, fortunately, buffer presidential power by making it necessary to conduct presidential politics state-by-state through the electoral college. States may not be the most rationally planned units of sub-federal governance, but, given the alternative of overweening and unimaginative national power, they surely deserve the protection the electoral college affords them.

Participation - For nearly two decades, while American politics has become increasingly nationalized, the level of political participation has been dwindling. Nearly 70 million Americans now do not vote in presidential elections, nearly 15 million eligible voters have dropped out of the political process during the last decade.

Survey results indicate that many of these non-participants feel alienated by the conduct of their leaders, confused by the growing complexity of the issues that face them and powerless in the face of large and growing institutions and forces. Many no longer believe that their vote can make a difference in any election or that any election can make a difference in their lives.

In the face of this, it seems absurd to revise America's system of choosing a president to make the indivual voter feel even more impotent and meaningless.

For an individual voter may well be persuaded that his vote can make the difference between winning and losing the electoral votes of his state. No individual in his right mind will ever be bullied into believing that his individual vote is likely to make a difference among 70 million or more.

Manipulation - Of all the changes in American political life, the advent of television has wrought the most profound and far-reaching alterations in the American political landscape.

During the period of television's growing impact, many traditional community institutions have atrophied, political parties have decayed and the grass roots structure of American politics - local clubs, reform and regular organizations and community and precinct leadership - have all diminished in importance. In their stead is a proliferation of single-issue organizations, polarizing attempts to attract the attention of television cameras and political candidates whose charisma quotient is seen as a more important personal attribute than competence and character.

Whether all of this is directly attributable to television is a subject of some debate. What is not debatable is that, in the actual conduct of American political campaigns, television has become an increasingly important factor. Money that went to precinct organizations, volunteer workers, travel for candidates to meet with local political, civic, religious and ethnic leaders is now being husbanded to pay for television commercials.

A whole new generation of media experts, with their attendant political pollsters, have become a dominant force in American politics by virtue of their ability to manipulate images in order to bring out the vote for their candidates. Managers of campaigns have made increasing use of paid television because, unlike volunteer organization and precinct politics, the video image reaches everyone and is easy to control. The larger the scale of the campaign - from local to state to national - the greater the growing dependence on television, and the less people and their desires, needs and involvement have anything to do with the American political enterprise.

The only thing keeping the dependence on television in national campaigns from being total is the need to complete for electoral votes in various states and therefore the need to relate to local political organizations and leadership and to mount an organizational effort to get a maximum turnout.

Unless the American people wish to turn their politics completely over to the Rafshoons and Garths and the Caddells and Teeters - to the media experts and the pollsters - they had better give serious thought to retaining the electoral college and the human factor in American politics.

WHEN THE DEBATE on the electoral college begins in the Senate, proponents of the Bayh amendment will likely make much of a Gallup Poll which shows that 84 per cent of Americans want direct elections for the presidency.

But those Americans were not asked whether they wanted to vitiate the federal system, weaken the pluralistic underpinnings of American democracy, decrease the level of political participation or turn American politics over to media manipulation. Had they been so asked, the results might have been quite different.

The issue before both Senate and nation is sufficiently complex so that polls are of little relevance. The debate over the electoral college represents a conflict of fundamental and competing values, in which neither side has a corner on the market of wisdom.

But what seems clear is that the Senate and the several states should think long and hard before trading in an imperfect system that has worked for the illusion of greater perfection that may not.