Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 69-year-old former governor of California who transferred his acting talents and conservative views from the sound stages of Hollywood to the halls of government, yesterday won a sweeping victory as the 40th president of the United States and immediately pledged to "seize the historic opportunity to change things."

Nominated by the Republicans who had twice earlier rejected his bids to head their ticket, Reagan defeated President Carter by a landslide margin in electoral votes, with independent contender John B. Anderson far behind and winning no states.

Reagan appeared before his supporters in Los Angeles at midnight EST and promised to "do my utmost to justify your faith." As he had done so often in the long campaign, he promised that "we're going to put Anderson back to work again."

In ratifying Reagan's claim that the Carter administration had damaged America's economy and international standing, the voters also turned thumbs down on a half-dozen leading liberal Democratic senators and elected the most conservative Congress in a generation. Their action strengthened the president-elect's right to interpret his victory as a mandate for the policies of stronger defense and skimpier government that he has articulated for 20 years.

Whether this victory in 1980 represents a fundamental political realignment like the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 won't be known without further analysis of the returns, but the question is already present in the results.

Carter conceded defeat before a crowd of supporters at the Sheraton-Washington Hotel while the polls were still open on the West Coast. He told them and a national television audience that he had promised Reagan, in a brief phone call, "the best transition in history." In an emotional but controlled voice, he said his followers could find consolation in the confidence that "the successes we have had" will not be forgotten.

As Carter spoke, the tally in the election was showing Reagan with just about 50 percent of the popular vote, Carter with 43 percent and Anderson with 6 percent. But Reagan was moving toward an electoral college landslide with more than 400 of the 538 possible votes.

Although Anderson was drawing barely more than the 5 percent minimum he needs to have his independent campaign expenses reimbursed by the taxpayers, he sounded jaunty when he talked to backers at the Hyatt-Regency, Hailing the election as "a celebration of democracy," the Illinois congressman hinted he would try again in 1984. "I will not be elected president this time," he said. "That is a decision deferred."

Reagan, whose appeal to "make America great again" by restoring traditional values and restraining the growth of government, is the oldest man ever elected president, the first actor and the first divorced man to gain the White House.

He rolled up his electoral majority by cutting deeply into traditionaly Democratic voting blocs in the Northeast and Midwest and by destroying Carter's southern base.

Carter was the first elected president since Herbert Hoover in 1932 to fail in a bid for a second term. But he was also the fifth successive president in 20 years who failed to complete what once was considered the normal two-term cycle. John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson did not run again, Richard M. Nixon was reelected but forced to resign, and Gerald R. Ford was defeated after gaining the office by appointment.

In assembling his big victory, Reagan built a solid band of support through the industrial states, taking Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and New York from Carter's 1976 column and holding Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.

Even more, he overwhelmed Carter in his native South, stripping Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina and Texas from the president and restoring Dixie to a potentially dominant southern-western conservative coalition in future presidential politics.

Network interviews with votersleaving the polling places indicated that Reagan had cut deeply into all elements of the New Deal-Democratic coalition except for blacks and Hispanics. NBC News said dissatisfaction with the job Carter had done in controlling inflation and in protecting America's interests in the world was the controlling factor in most voters' decisions.

ABC News said Carter's share of the Democratic vote apparently declined from 81 percent in his 1976 victory to 66 percent -- with Reagan taking 27 percent and Anderson 7 percent.

Overall, ABC News said Carter held only 60 percent of those had voted for him in 1976, with 29 percent going to Reagan and 9 percent to Anderson. By contrast, Reagan held 81 percent of the 1976 Ford vote, with Carter getting 11 percent and Anderson 6 percent.

ABC News said Carter had only a 49-to-41 percent lead among union members, with Anderson at 7 percent. The voter interviews said Reagan got 70 percent support from those making $20,000 a year or more; 59 percent in the $10,000-$20,000 range; and a 51 percent majority even among those in the $5,000-$10,000 bracket.

Reagan, according to this survey, had a 60-to-32 margin among Protestants and a 48-to-40 lead among Catholics. Jewish voters, normally one of the most solid blocs for Democrat, split 40-to-38 for Carter over Reagan, with 20 percent for Anderson.

The split between the races was dramatic. Carter took 80 percent of the black vote, but only 33 percent of the white vote. Reagan got 57 percent among whites and only 14 percent among blacks. Although Carter had led most pre-election polls among women, Reagan apparently carried women by 10 percentage points and men by twice as wide a margin.

The outcome was no surprise to either candidate. Both men had been told by their pollsters to expect a big Reagan win, after late polling showed the weekend news of improving prospects for return of the U.S. hostages from Iran had not stopped the momentum Reagan gained in last Tuesday's televised debate with Carter.

What was a surprise was that Anderson's vote also apparently grew in the final days of the campaign. ABC News said that of those who made up their mind in the final week, 13 percent decided for Anderson -- about double the percentage who were deciding for him earlier. The normal pattern is that the vote for a third-party candidate declines as Election Day draws near.

The 56-year-old Georgian and his running mate, Vice President Walter f. Mondale of Minnesota, will leave office Jan. 20 when Reagan and Vice President-elect George Bush of Texas take the oaths on the Capital steps.

Seventeen days later, on Feb. 6, Reagan will mark his 70th birthday. He will be almost two years older when he takes office than the previous recordholder, William Henry Harrison. Harrison caught cold on the Inaugural stand and died a month later.

Reagan, however, was the picture of health and brimming confidence as the nation entrusted him with its highest office. It marked the end of a remarkable saga by the onetime union president, New Deal Democrat and self-described "hemophiliac liberal," who changed philosophies and parties in the same period of his life when he was divorced by actress Jane Wyman and married to actress Nancy Davis.

The "new Reagan" emerged in the national consciousness through a television speech on behalf of conservative Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964 -- but it was a speech he had given often as a touring ambassador for General Electric Co.

The speech catapulted him into the Republican nomination for governor of California in 1966 and a million-vote victory in that state, which whetted Reagan's appetite for national office. He made a belated run for the GOP nomination in 1968, but lost to Richard Nixon. In 1976, two years after he completed his second term as governor, he made a full-scale challenge to President Gerald R. Ford, but fell short by a few votes at the Republican convention. This year, he was not to be denied.

As remarkable as was Reagan's rise, it was no more dramatic than the downfall of Carter, the peanut processor from Plains, Ga., who displayed such stunning skill in defeating better-known Democrats for the nomination in 1976. Never again was the former Georgia governor as impressive politically as he was in those first six months of 1976. g

In the general election, he began with a wide lead over Ford but barely eked out a win with 51.1 percent of the two -party vote and 27 more electoral votes than the required minimum. Whatever its substantive accomplishments, his presidency was one beset with constant and increasing political problems, measured by declining support in the public opinion polls.

In mid-1979, Carter went into an extraordinary 10-day retreat at Camp David and emerged to shake up his Cabinet and White House staff in preparation for the election. But the moves did not have their desired effect.

The long campaign began in the autumn of 1979 with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown challenging Carter's right to renomination and a half-dozen more or less widely known Republicans filing against Reagan -- while former president Ford watched the Gop struggle in hopes of finding an opening for himself.

The opening phase of the Democratic contest was overshadowed by the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the capture of several dozen American hostages by militants protected by the Iranian regime. Carter used the crisis to rebuild his damaged standing in domestic public opinion. Once he reversed Kennedy's initial lead in the polls, he excused himself from a scheduled January debate with his two challengers and withdrew into the White House while his wife, Rosalynn, and Vice President Mondale took over the main burden of the campaign.

The tactic worked perfectly in the initial test of strength -- the Jan. 21 Iowa caucuses, where Carter dealt what proved to be a decisive blow to Kennedy. Not until late May, when the failure of an attempted rescue mission for the hostages had soured public attitudes toward Carter once again, did he return to the campaign trail for a single day of stumping in Ohio.

Long before then, he had cinched renomination. Brown dropped out after losing ignominiously in Wisconsin April 1. Kennedy's hopes, as well, were finished by Wisconsin, though Kennedy stayined in until the first night of the Democratic convention in August. After losing a series of early contests in the Midwest, the South and the East, Kennedy scored a double victory over Carter in New York and Connecticut March 25.

Had Kennedy been able to defeat Carter again the following week in Wisconsin, the president almost certainly would have been forced to leave his White House sanctuary -- with all the risks involved. But on the morning of April 1, as Wisconsin voters were at their breakfast tables, Carter called an extraordinary 7 a.m. news conference to announce that there was fresh reason to hope for the early release of the hostages.

When the progress failed to materialize, White House officials said the Iranian authorities had reneged. But Carter's Wisconsin win remained a tainted victory in many voters' minds and helped feed the cynicism about his use of the hostage issue.

That was little consolation to Kennedy, who was battling his own credibility crisis with the public. Poll after poll showed that even though most Democrats agreed with Kennedy's criticisms of Carter's economic and foreign policies, many were reluctant to vote for the man who had driven Mary Jo Kopechne to her drowning death at Chappaquiddick and who was now living apart from his wife.

While the Democratic struggle was protracted and personal, Reagan's course to the nomination was relatively bloodless and untroubled. He got off on the wrong foot in Iowa by declining to join the other six Republicans in a televised debate and by skimping in his personal campaigning.

Bush won an upset victory in Iowa and for a few weeks enjoyed what he called "Big Mo," the kind of momentum that sometimes carries candidates to victory. In Bush's case, however, it carried him only to a sound beating by Reagan in New Hampshire's leadoff primary Feb. 26.

Reagan in New Hampshire was a different man from the one who had campaigned so sparingly in Iowa. He put in long hours, going from town to town by chartered bus, and he dominated the two candidate debates. The second, a scheduled head-to-head confrontation with Bush in Nashua, produced perhaps the most dramatic moment of the year. Reagan had taken over the financing of the debate when the newspaper sponsorship was ruled an illegal campaign contribution. He showed up with the excluded Republican contenders in tow, and when newspaper editor Jon Breen ordered Reagan's microphone silenced while Reagan was pleading for their inclusion, the Californian bellowed: "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!"

Reagan got the name wrong -- just as he made a great many other small factual errors during the campaign. But the voters responded to what seemed the genuine emotion and they liked what they heard from the longtime actor. Reagan rolled up a big win in New Hampshire and followed up with a string of victories in states from Florida to Illinois -- states that he had lost to Ford in their 1976 battle.

As his bandwagon rolled, the Republican field was quickly narrowed. Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas and Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee gave up. sSo did former Texas governor John B. Connally Jr., with only one delegate to show for his $13 million campaign. Conservative Rep. Philip M. Crane of Illinois -- a young Reagan clone -- recognized that Reagan needed no stand-in. And, after Wisconsin, Anderson left to pursue his dream of an independent candidacy.

As they were leaving, Ford met with his advisers to weigh a belated entry in the race, and decided reluctantly that Reagan could not be stopped. It took Bush until late May to reach the same conclusion, but his withdrawal certified Reagan's victory.

The only drama at the GOP convention in Detroit in July was the choice of a vice presidential running mate. For 24 hours, Reagan flirted with bringing old antagonist Ford onto the ticket, but the discussions snagged on the role Ford would play in a Reagan administration, and the nominee then turned to Bush -- the man his advisers had recommended all along.

Carter had no doubts about keeping Mondale, but it took all the skill they and their aides could muster to keep the volatile emotions of the Democratic convention at Madison Square Garden in August from exploding out of control. In the end, they offered Kennedy enough platform compromises that the senator and his liberal-labor-minority coalition, comprising about 40 percent of the convention, reluctantly assented to Carter's victory.

But it was evident even on the night the president accepted renomination that he faced an uphill battle for a second term. Reagan's lead in the public opinion polls was inflated by the publicity boom from the Detroit convention, but his advantage in electoral strength could not be so easily dismissed.

The Californian started with near-solid support in the western half of the continent, plus such traditional Republican states as Iowa, Indiana, Virginia and New Hampshire. His conservative ideology had strong appeal in Carter's home base, the South, making such states as Texas, Florida and Mississippi vulnerable to capture.

And in the battleground states of the Northeast and Midwest -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois -- the "blue-collar blues," the disaffection of workers who had experienced unemployment, inflation and a loss of real buying power in the last 3 1/2 years, dogged Carter's footsteps.

The president fought back, not so much by defending his record as by charging that Reagan was a dogmatic, dangerous conservative and a Cold Warrior whose election would threaten the social programs enacted since the New Deal and the fragile structure of detente with the Soviet Union.

The tactic appeared to work, with polls showing many traditional Democrats returning to the party banner, especially those liberals who earlier had toyed with voting for Anderson. Carter's argument that Reagan might be a trigger-happy president in a nuclear age was particularly effective with women, some of whom already disapproved of Reagan's opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. The polls showed Carter winning the election among women voters while Reagan was carrying the men.

Overall, the opinion samplings indicated an ever-closer race as decision time drew near. But then Carter, who had declined to participate in a debate with both Reagan and Anderson, accepted an invitation to face Reagan alone in Cleveland Oct. 28.

Carter pressed his points -- and effectively -- but Reagan remained cool and collected, as 40 years before the cameras had trained him to do. The essence of the debate for many viewers was captured in two seemingly irrelevant lines: Carter reducing his most telling argument about the danger of nuclear war to the level of spurious campaign rhetoric by claiming the issue was raied by his young daughter, Amy; Reagan airily dismissing Carter's attack on his past positions with a patronizing, "There you go again."

In the wake of the debate, not only did Carter's slow climb back to parity in the polls halt, but Reagan enjoyed a five-point surge in most of the battleground states.

All that remained was the final plot development -- the promise from Iran that, if its conditions were met, the 52 hostages would be freed. The terms were announced Sunday, and Carter told a listening nation from the White House that they offered "a positive basis" for negotiations.

Whether they also offered him rescue from his multiple campaign handicaps no one knew, but the president insisted that he would not be influenced in dealing for the hostages by the dictates of the political calendar.

On election morning, the 52 Americans were still in Iran, and Carter was still in the White House. But not for long.