JOSEPH NAPOLITAN is an American political consultant who rarely gets to consult with any American politicians. But don't fret for him -- his business apparently is thriving. His business is to influence other nations' elections.

Napolitan is part of a band of American political guns-for-hire who have been plying their trade in the elections and referenda of a remarkable number of other countries -- the Philippines, Israel, Spain, Australia, Mexico, the Sudan, Venezuela, Italy, the Dominican Republic, France, Costa Rica, England, Sweden, Bermuda, Canada and even the tiny Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. And, given the secrecy in which the consultants often operate, even that list may be incomplete.

But wherever else they may be selling their wares, there's no doubt that the slogans, polls and TV images of Napolitan, David Garth, David Sawyer and others have joined blue jeans, Coke, McDonald's and other American concoctions as a significant international influence.

We can, for example, partly thank or blame America's Garth for helping to reelect Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Likud coalition in Israel's 1980 elections.

"Based on our polling," says Zev Furst, a Garth partner, "we had to show that Begin was not the bombastic individual that his opponents made him out to be, that he was rational, intelligent, discriminating, human. . . . So we wanted to put him on camera in a calm, warm situation."

Losing to Garth and to the calm, warm and tough Begin was U.S. consultant Sawyer, who represented Israel's Labor Party and who -- with new Isreali elections predicted after the investigation of the Beirut massacres is completed -- says he is still involved in Israeli politics.

In another corner of the globe, the people of the Philippines can in part thank or hate Napolitan for the fact that Ferdinand Marcos is still their president. Marcos was the first foreign client Napolitan signed up after U.S. politics became a ho-hum affair for him.

"After you've done 50 or 60 campaigns for Congress and Senate and governor, you realize that it still looks like the same guy sliding into third base, and it's time to look for new challenges," remarks Napolitan, who was a sports reporter before he started a public relations firm and then branched into politics. "Right now, I don't have a single political client in the continental United States," he says, not that he couldn't if he wanted to. His clients have included Lyndon Johnson and Humbert Humphrey.

Napolitan's foreign election adventures began in the mid-1960s when he crisscrossed Europe to convince politicians that they needed his services. He even opened a London office. But no clients materialized. Then, in 1969, he agreed to represent the Philippines' Marcos in a reelection bid.

It was a campaign that took some innovating. Since only 20 percent of the Filipino population owned television sets, Napolitan recalls, he mounted film projectors on 40 trucks and sent them out to villages throughout the countryside. "We took the film to the people because they couldn't see it on television," he says. "You've got to adapt to the natural environment."

After that successful campaign, though, Marcos didn't turn to Napolitan for any more election advice. He simply declared martial law, a less bothersome way of retaining power, if not a very good one for the political-marketing business.

Boredom is by no means the chief reason why American political pitchmen have been going global.

"There's only one presidential race and a few key Senate races during a peak election year in the United States," says Jay Severin, a former Garth associate who has been exploring the international political market for his own firm. "That same year there might be the equivalent of 15 other presidential races going on in other countries. So if you don't get the one in the U.S.A., you might get another one, or you might get two other ones."

Which are quite enriching things to get, as Severin notes: "It's very, very lucrative. There's no limit on contributions, there's no limit on (media) buying. A single candidate will spend $30 million or $40 million."

That's one reason why all the criticism you can muster is unlikely to stem the flow of U.S. election exports.

The criticism is certainly not in short supply. "You're not talking about soft drinks," Richard Pious, a politicial scientist at Barnard College, typically complains. "You're talking about the essential aspect of their system, of their way of life. If it's not their system, whose is it?"

No question: There's a certain arrogance evident in deciding to influence other nations' elections. As Pious says, "In a number of these countries, the people who are going over don't know the language, don't know the culture, don't know the political traditions."

Consultants and their associates, of course, think they can learn more than enough about other lands. Douglas Shoen, a pollster with international experience, likes to point to the example of Ronald Maierrano, a Garth partner who handled the United Bermuda Party (UPB) campaign of 1980. The UPB, a predominately white party in a nation that is 60 percent black, was expected to lose parliamentary control that year.

"You had a white-dominated establishment which was integrated with black businessmen against a black party with radical fringes," Shoen states. "What we were trying to do was help the white establishment party . . . present a face to the black community that they were effective and concerned about blacks. They also had a lot of in-fighting, and we had to try to make them look not like a group of selfish powermongers but rather like a concerned, effective economic machine working for the benefit of all Bermudians, which was very difficult."

But the pitch worked, and Shoen attributes the unexpected UBP victory to Maierrano's efforts -- particularly to his knowledge of Bermuda. "He practically lived down there. He understood Bermudians and their politics and their way of looking at the world as well as a trained psychologist would," Shoen maintains.

The arrogance issue gets even stickier when you ponder the degree of influence U.S. consultants may want to exert over other nations' policy debates. Although some consultants may exaggerate their influence, many believe that full control over foreign campaigns is an ideal worth striving for.

"If one were to speculate about the future based on the past," says Severin, "one would look back to the domestic politics in which Garth was every bit as much a pioneer as he is now in international campaigns. And the speculation would hold the following: that in the beginning of his career very few domestic candidates wanted to hear of the notion that David would handle the whole ball of wax. That he would spend the money, that he would hire and fire, that he would do the speeches, the press, the advertising, the furnishing, that everything would be done from a single source. No one wanted to hear that, much now as many international clients don't want to hear it.

"What's going to happen, though, is the same thing that happened in the United States. Of every 10 people each year that David says that to, seven aren't going to listen and three will. The three are going to win. And after 10 years, you're going to have a cluster of people who have won tough races. And the other thing they will have in common is that they will have listened to their consultants -- which isn't easy to do -- and they will have gone along with that methodology."

Severin is mistaken, of course, if he really means to suggest that those who listen to David Garth or anyone else always win. Just last year, for example, two notable clients of Garth's firm in this country -- New York Mayor Ed Koch and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley -- lost their drives to be governors. Obviously, hordes of politicians go down to defeat after taking consultants' advice. But there's little doubt consultants like to have as much control of a campaign as possible.

In the context of other nations' elections, that issue makes even a Joseph Napolitan uncomfortable. "I'm not even sure it's a good idea to give control of a campaign to a foreigner, an outsider," he says. "I just don't think that foreigners should take complete control of a country, especially to the point of setting policy for a government."

But unless their counsel is simply ignored, how can American consultants avoid, to one degree or another, shaping policies of foreign leaders? If the pollsters' findings are heeded, and if they show that certain policies provide the best chance of victory, how can these Americans avoid influencing the questions put before peoples of other lands or the answers proposed by their clients? That's what they're in business to do.

When a consultant persuades his candidate to stress housing -- as Garth did with the COPE Party in Venezuela in 1979 (Napolitan was representing the other side) -- he may in effect commit his client to a policy of subsidized building. If a consultant urges his client to stress state security -- as Garth did with Begin in 1980 -- he may reinforce a political persona committed to confrontation.

If there are any contraints on the consultants' business abroad, one stems from the fact that they are not always popular with the local citizenry. "Some countries just get a little nervous that there's an American involved," says Napolitan. That why consultants overseas often work in secrecy, whisking about in planes and limousines, as Napolitan did when he met with French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1975.

If word leaks out, Napolitan also says, there may be "all kinds of reports that you're working for the government, or some (intelligence) agency is sponsoring this, or you're going to be controlled by the American government."

It would certainly put a crimp in the consultants' business if that belief spread -- or if it were more than merely a belief. One assumes that U.S. intelligence agencies are intelligent enough to track the travels of the consultants and to try to tap their knowledge of foreign leaders, but no evidence of this has yet surfaced.

"In general," says Severin, "the State Department doesn't keep as close an eye on the people in this business as they might find it wise to."

While the consultants are under no obligation to register or report their commitments overseas with the American government, Napolitan says that he does make informal calls to State Department officials, to make sure the election of a new client would not compromise American interests. But he adds that he would make his own decision if the State Department ever tried to dissuade him from taking a foreign assignment.

Consultants also sometimes reject foreign clients on their own. Garth, for example, says he turned down the ruling conservative party in the last Greek elections. Napolitan says he has refused some requests for reasons of personal safety -- "I don't care much who the president of Nicaragua is, or of El Salvador, if it means getting killed to help him get elected" -- or because the call is from a totalitarian regime in search of some respectability. "We get calls -- not all the time, but we've had enough of them -- from dictatorships in Latin American that have facade elections," he says. "We would not want to participate."

In the long run, what is most likely to erode the market for American election exports is the growth of home-grown consultants. This has already been happening in nations such as France and Germany, and the business can be expected to keep growing abroad as it has at home.

That will not satisfy critics who worry about the global spread of simplistic election slogans or manipulated television images. It merely means that more nations will have their own citizens inflicting on their own electorate the issues that have surrounded political consultants in this country.