FOR SELF-DELUDING Democrats, this is the time to dream of what might have been had they avoided Churchill's "terrible Ifs" in the presidential politics of 1984:

If only, they say to themselves, we had had a better candidate. If only the people weren't so dumb. If only we had been able to strip the Teflon and apply the Velcro so our issues would have stuck instead of slipped away. If only our guy had been charismatic, telegenic, more like -- well, more like Ronald Reagan, before he defected to the Republicans. If only the me-too baby-boomers, yuppies, yumpies, buppies, bumpies and others who form the supposed youthful Cult of Selfishness hadn't crested just now. If only the election were six months or a year away when the wise men of Wall Street tell us interest rates could be rising again inste of falling and inflation igniting instead of declining all as a result of those deadly Reagan budget deficits.

If only we had been able to avoid all this, why then Election Day would produce a far different result.

Alas, poor Democrats, as Cassius said to Brutus, the fault that you are underlings lies not in the stars; it lies in yourselves. No amount of wishful thinking can wash away the harsh message the voters who have endured this longest of election years appear ready to send your candidate and your party next Tuesday.

Unless we are about to experience the most stunning upset in our history, greater even than Truman over Dewey in 1948, this election marks an overwhelming rejection of what Americans think the Democratic Party now stands for nationally. As a liberal Democrat said to me during one of my stops while interviewing voters around the country this year:

"Mondale is carrying a lot of political baggage with him. He doesn't offer you much of an alternative. I don't want to go back to the days Mondale represents. Reagan is the people's candidate. Mondale is the government's candidate. That's the way it is perceived."

So it is, and for the Democrats that perception is of a party that represents the minorities (mainly blacks), the poor, and the clamorous, selfish, special constituent interest groups -- especially unions -- that are believed to infest Washington and work against the best interests of all the people.

That is the strongest impression I carry away from a year's journey reporting on attitudes of voters throughout America. While opinions about the issues, the ideologies, the personalities, the hopes and fears of citizens for the future have ranged widely, I found a striking consensus about the Democratic Party. Not since the 1964 Lyndon Johnson- Barry Goldwater presidential election -- the ideologlical "choice instead of an echo" election that kept the country headed down the path charted by Franklin Roosevelt a generation before -- has such uniformity of opinion existed.

The point hardly needs emphasizing. You need only talk with unemployed factory workers and sorely beset farmers battling the worst times since the Great Depression who say they are voting for Ronald Reagan to realize that something more than affection for Reagan lies at the heart of this election -- and something more than selfishness, too. Even if the Democrats win back many of these former supporters in the closing hours of this campaign -- yes, even if Walter Mondale wins -- the Democrats will still have trouble convincing citizens that they could lead the country down the right path.

Not that the Republican Party can take great comfort over the likely outcome of this election. For my second strongest impression about this election is that the Republicans, perhaps even more than the Democrats, face considerable problems from the collective picture Americans have formed of their party.

There is truth in the president's cynical and callous statement last week that "the most blighted areas of the country, places of desperation, are areas that have been political strongholds of the other (Democratic) party for many years." At the same time, many Americans believe the Republican Party nationally stands increasingly in danger of representing only the very rich and the extreme religious right -- and it worries them. That kind of perception -- and in my experience it's widespread -- poses problems for the GOP future.

The president speaks now of the prospects for a "historic electoral realignment" that will result from the casting of ballots Tuesday. He envisions -- and encourages -- disaffected Democrats to cast aside their long-held allegiance and by their votes transform the Republicans from minority status into the nation's majority political party.

Again, even if the polls prove right and Reagan gets the great landslide forcast for him, even if he wins all 50 states (and I offer big odds against that possibility), that result will not signal a political realignment. A realignment will only occur because of the results of a Reagan second term. If the next four years are successful ones for Reagan and the Republicans, then we may be witnessing the beginning of an historic party shift. If not, this election could lead only to disaster for Reagan's personal standing, for his place in history and for the hold of the Republican Party on American loyalities for the rest of this century.

Just 48 hours before the election, I don't see a shift to the Republicans occurring in this election.

On the contrary, and polls notwithstanding, my interviews on the road held after the presidential TV debates suggest a different conclusion. I have encountered Reagan supporters from the Midwest to Wall Street who are disturbed enough by the picture they saw of their chosen candidate to reconsider their earlier hopes for a landslide that would give the president a blank check in a second term. They now speak of the need "to strike a balance" for the next four years. They mean it would be more desirable for the country if the Democrats retain strength in the Congress.

Besides, talk about the demise of the Democratic Party after 1984 is nonsense. A party that today controls 35 of the 50 statehouses, 33 of the nation's state legislatures, twice as many city halls as the Republicans, holds a 99-seat margin in the House of Representatives and stands an excellent chance Tuesday to come within a couple of seats of regaining control of the Senate hardly can be considered moribund.

The problem for the Democrats lies not at local and state levels, nor even in the halls of Congress. It lies in public doubts about their abilities to lead the nation from the White House.

Since the great Johnson landslide 20 years ago, when the Democratic presidential nominee won 6l.1 percent of the votes, support for the Democratic nominee in presidential elections has eroded dramatically. In l968, Hubert H. Humphrey received 42.7 percent of the votes. In 1972, George McGovern got 37.5 percent. In 1976, Jimmy Carter took 5l.0 percent. In 1980, Carter's total dropped to 4l percent.

If Reagan is re-elected Tuesday, it will mark the fourth time in the last five elections that the American people have entrusted the nation's destinies to the Republican candidate. You don't have to be a political sage to conclude from this history that the voters have been sending the Democrats a negative message for almost a generation. They appear prepared to reinforce that message with a vengeance on Tuesday.

In a sense, this presidential election was sealed long ago. The reasons are obvious: peace, prosperity, patriotism and a popular president, who also happens to be lucky. That sense of having luck on its side is something that has been missing from this traditionally most optimistic of nations. For nearly a generation, during the years of assassinations, civil unrest, Vietnam and Watergate, fate seemed to conspire to dash America's traditional expectations that times are bound to improve. Now the country dares hope its luck has turned for the better, that once again tomorrow will be better than today. It credits Reagan with helping inspire that glow.

As one person put it, in America of 1984 we have essentially a "satisfied society."

That was a Democrat speaking, not unmindful of deeper strains, conflicts and problems within the nation. Nor by any means was he uncritical of Reagan. But I believe his remark sums up the prevailing mood of most voters this fall.

If the election results were preordained, though, a Reagan landslide was not. Two factors, each created by the Democrats' own hands, helped the Republicans significantly.

The first involved Geraldine Ferraro. I believe the Mondale candidacy was gravely damaged in the week after the Democratic convention. Too many people in too many places have told me they were turned off by the problems Ferraro faced after the convention. And it was Mondale they blamed -- for chosing her without realizing what trouble she would get into.

"I just don't think Mondale handled the Ferraro selection well at all," said one voter who decided not to vote Democratic on this basis. "It was indicative of the kinds of things that bothered me about Mondale all along."

Jesse Jackson was the Democrats' second self-created problem. The stridency of his campaign and its demagogic tone did exactly what some Democratic political strategists feared -- polarized the electorate on racial lines, produced a massive white reaction, played into the hands of the Republicans and racists and left the south more divided racially than at any time since the 1960s. All of those emotions cut against the grain of a nation feeling good about itself.

Ronald Reagan, whatever else he represents, is the candidate of the happy ending. The people are betting -- yearning, even praying -- he will fulfill that promise. In the absence of a visible crisis, foreign or domestic, they are content to continue just as they are and try for more of the same: a feeling of greater national stability, security, safety, strength and success. So let 'er rip, the people are saying. Let's break the string of failed one-term presidencies, go for four more years and hope for that enticing happy ending.

The desire for presidential continuity operates powerfully in the America of 1984. In my experience, it forms a unifying thread that binds together the most unlikely kinds of voters:

In California, Richard C. Raack, a history professor on the San Francicso Bay Peninsula, liberal by anyone's definition, said his main reason for casting his first vote for a Republican presidential candidate was his hope that Reagan can give the country needed stability and continuity through a ful two terms in the White House, the first such since Eisenhower. In Iowa, Toni Nies, a young farm wife whose desperate struggle to keep the family farm ended in defeat with its sale this year, will also vote for Reagan. Like farming, she said, it takes time to establish good crops. So grant him another four years to see what he can do.

These voters are typical of many I encountered in another significant way: they will vote for Reagan even though they personally disapprove of, or are doubtful about, many of his policies.

That "Teflon factor" seems the central paradox involving Reagan's popularity. Yet, on closer examination, it's not that surprising. People can disagree -- and do -- with the specifics of Reagan policies, and still support him. And it's not because he's coated with Teflon either. They want to believe things will work out in the end. For the moment, they have no good reason to think otherwise. For now at leas, they have suspended judgment.

Of all those interviewed this year, no one I met expressed these feelings better or gave a more insightful reading of the current political moods than Larry Stone of Sunnyvale, Calif. He's a liberal Democrat, the former mayor of that city, and a successful businessman.

"I think a lot of people here are delighted they don't have to focus on the issues," he said, "that Reagan has made it okay, acceptable, to focus just on the style -- and not to feel guilty about it. You don't have to feel guilty if you like the guy. You know, my father was passionate about FDR, about his style. I don't know if he knew what the bank holiday really meant. I don't know if he really understood what the New Deal was all about and what all those programs were. He was just passionate about the man. There's a lot of that same feeling, that passion, for Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, there was substance behind FDR. There's no substance behind Ronald Reagan. The similarity between them is that everybody thinks everything will be all right, and it lets them off the hook.

"What I'm hearing is it's not so bad to disassociate yourself from the (Mondale) debacle. That you're not going to be held accountable by the Democratic Party for saying I wasn't part of that disaster. My thinking is cut your losses, don't waste your time or energy. You learn here if you're a Democrat to put your time and money and energy behind somebody who's going to make a difference. I'm not interested in busting my buns for somebody who's going to win big or lose big. We're already looking ahead to 1988. We're talking about Bill Bradley and Gary Hart and Joe Biden and Mario Cuomo. So you cut your losses, don't waste your energy, and hope like hell that you can survive four more years of Ronald Reagan, that he doesn't screw it up so bad for the country.

"I mean, if you're talking politics, four more years of Ronald Reagan is probably going to be good for the Democratic Party because by 1988 with the likelihood of problems that will be fully understood, we're going to have something to go for. If you're talking about the interests of the country, it's very bad. Now for me personally -- in the real estate and investment business, Ronald Reagan has been good for me, economically, the last four years. And he'll probably be good for me economically and financially for the next four years. It's kind of like, God damn it, if the people can't see this guy is bad for the country, then let him make me money. I say that publicly sometimes in a very cynical way: 'Hell, I tried, so let him make me wealthy.'

"A lot of people feel that way and it causes you to become very cynical about the process. I do not fear a tremendous shift to the right in the country by what is happening in this election or because of what Ronald Reagan stands for, but I can tell you this: my own philosophy has moved to the right. I'm a Democrat. I think I understand where I've been, which is more than I can say for a lot of people. But I've been disappointed with a lot of things, particularly with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. But I think that on all issues, other than economic issues, which of course are very important, the voting public clearly sides with the philosophy embraced by the Democratic Party. On the issues of the environment, on the issues of social justice, on the issues of nuclear armaments, on the issues of defense spending, on the issues of foreign affairs and involvement in Central America by the CIA, I believe the public overwhelmingly backs what the Democrats stand for."

Larry Stone missed just one important aspect of 1984, its nastiness. Underneath the glow of good times, the flags and balloons, the appeals to patriotism and nationalism, this has been an ugly political year. Its essential characteristics have been negative. Instead of inspiring unity, it has sown discord and division, turned race against race and religion against religion. Instead of offering illumination about the issues that will determine the future, it has descended into cheap generalities and platitudes. Democrats have contributed to destroying their candidate with their repeated assaults on his personal qualities and lack of political abilities. It was they who stamped the Mondale loser image in the public mind during the long primary months.

Reagan and the Republicans have courted the extremists and have capitalized politically from their fervent support. But in so doing, if the people I've met are any measure, they have set off alarm bells across the country among moderates and conservatives alike in both parties and set the stage for greater tensions beyond 1984.

The economic situation is another source of widespread discomfort about the future. In the heart of U.S. capitalism, on Wall Street, the old saw says the money-makers are driven by two emotions, fear and greed. The fear is visible this year, and it involves uncertainty about the economic future. Jim Balog, an investment banker and senior executive vice president of Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., a Reagan supporter, put it this way:

"I believe there's a tide of social, political, economic thought in America that is independent of the four-year electoral process of presidential elections. In short, I think that Jimmy Carter was tapping the same well springs of thought in the American people that Ronald Reagan did. Jimmy Carter said: 'I don't know anybody in Washington and isn't that good? And we'll get the federal government off your back.' Unfortunately, I think he was probably confused with his deep-seated populist feelings and secondly, with a weak leadership idea. So when Reagan came in I think it was the continuation of that same desire on the part of the American people from blue-collar workers and taxicab drivers to everybody else, that God damn it we'd exhausted the policies and techniques that we had used in the post-Great Depression period and some change had to come. Ronald Reagan came in and rode that same desire with what was perceived to be some kind of a landslide in 1980, but it really wasn't . . . .

"My feeling is he's going to have a recession at some point in his next four years. And I suspect a recession of significant proportions -- significant proportions that will cast some doubt upon the economic wisdom that he propounds. I don't see how the dollar can stay this strong for four years. I don't see how we can expect the rest of the world to finance 40 percent of our deficit . . . . I don't see how those trade deficits cannot be redressed. I mean, jeepers creepers, we're losing share of (export) markets permanently. Those things have got to come home to roost in the next four years. I'm guessing they are going to roost about the time of the next congresional elections. That's when we'll be kind of in the middle of the mess

"My worry is that we might have a failed economic policy in the second term and then Lord knows what we'll get in the next four after that. Because if the people suffered through the recession that we had two years ago, through tax policy that they say favors the rich, and then on top of that we get a big fat recession, they'll say, 'Damn it that's a failed policy. Let's change horses again.' And if that happens we will have thrown away a terrific opportunity."

Thus, the final "terrible If" that hangs over this presidential year:

What if there is no happy ending for the Reagan second term? Assuming, of course, there is to be one, and that the voters have no cosmic surprise in store for all of us on Election Day.