Asserting that the 1976 election "came perilously close to putting the popular vote loser in the White House," Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) yesterday launched his quadrennial campaign for direct election of the President and Vice President.

At the opening of Senate hearings on his proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate the electoral college, Bayh said the measure has "a better chance than ever" of congressional passage this year because of the close result in the November election.

Bayh said that a shift of 9,245 votes from Jimmy Carter to Gerald Ford in Ohio and Hawaii would have meant victory for Ford in the electoral college despite Carter's popular vote plurity of 1.7 million votes nationwide.

Elimination of the electoral college is a long-standing proposal that gains impetus after each close presidential election.

Following the Nixon-Humphrey contest in 1968, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment establishing direct popular election. But the measure was killed on the Senate floor by a filibuster of Southern and small-state senators.

Bayh expressed confidence yesterday that he could defeat a filibuster and win Senate passage for the amendment this year. Rep. Robert McClory (R-Ill.), who has sponsored the amendment in the House, said the House would "very likely" approve it if the Senate does so.

At yesterday's hearing a bipartisan group of senators agreed with Bayh that the electoral collge is a historical anomaly that carries with it a risk of subverting the popular will.

The senators discussed the recurring problem of the "faithless elector" - a member of the electoral college who does not vote for the candidate who carried his state.

In each of the last five elections at least one elector has voted for someone other than the two major-party candidates. Last year one elector in Washington state cast his ballot for Ronald Reagan rather than Gerald Ford, who carried the state.

During this discussion, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who was Ford's running mate last year, observed casually that "just after the election, we were shopping, not shopping but looking around for electors to see if we could negotiate with two or three."

Dole explained later to reporters that he had been referring to "just some speculative discussions among Republican campaign aides when it appeared that Ford might come within four electoral votes of victory. He said Ford had "effectively scotched any plan like that" by conceding to Carter the morning after the election.

The only witness to oppose direct election of Presients was Sen. Howard W. Cannon (D-Nev.), who proposed an alternative plan that would apportion each state's electoral vote in accordance with its popular vote total.

Cannon said his plan would force candidates to pay some attention to small states that would be completely ignored if voting followed a direct population formula.

But Sen. Hubert II, Humphrey (D-Minn.), disagreed, saying the electoral college system forces candidates to concentrate on "big states with the big electoral counts."

"I brood on this," Humphrey said. "In my '68 race I had to ignore whole areas of the country because they didn't have enough electoral votes.It really sort of broke my heart."