One issue that went virtually unmentioned in the election of 1980 continues to lead the polls in 1981 and is a good bet to dominate the 1982 campaign. Crime is the issue, and scared and angry is the public mood.

Just consider these private poll figures on the crime issue. In one very large eastern state, when people were asked recently to name the most important problem confronting the state, the problem about which they wanted something done, 49 percent of the respondents named crime. In that state's largest city, the number went up to 80 percent! In a booming Sun Belt city, in response to basically the same question, the answers were crime -- 40 percent -- in first place and police -- 19 percent -- in fourth place. So three out of five respondents named public and personal safety.

Don't think that crime is only a problem for large cities. One trouble-free (by most urban standards) border-state college community was asked whether establishing law and order was the single most important issue facing the local government. By a margin of 55 percent to 37 percent, the voters said that it was.

The crime statistics support the poll numbers. American crime is a growth business. For 1979, the last full year for which FBI figures are available, the number of reported burglaries was up to 3.3 million. That represented a 50 percent increase in burglaries since the beginning of the last decade. From 1970 to 1979, robberies were up by a third. The murder rate, in less than a generation, has doubled in our nation. But murder and rape and aggravated assault are considered to be violent crimes. Burglary and robbery are defined as crimes against property rather than against persons, so they are classified as non-violent. Please don't try to tell the victims of either crime that their experience has been "non-violent." No one is ever again as secure or as comfortable in a home that has been broken into, that has been violated.

Practicing politics by analogy is not very smart, usually. The crime issue of 1981 is totally different from the crime issue of 10 years ago. Then, a major ingredient in the middle-age outrage was resentment at the open promiscuity and vulgarity of some of the young. Not only did some of those young punks do some of the things that we had only whispered about in the locker rooms, but they talked about it, with no apparent guilt. Permissiveness was much discused and much disliked in 1970.

That is not the case now. Today's voters are scared and overwhelmingly want tougher official action. Take the question of the death penalty. According to the Gallup Poll, in 1971 some 49 percent of the American people approved of the death penalty. Today the Gallup approval figure is 66 percent.

All of these figures on crime, it is important to note, are up with no major political figure "working" the crime issue. There has not been, nor is there now, any public figure of the prominence of Estes Kefauver or George Wallace emphasizing the issue or holding Senate hearings.Crime is an issue that has been raised by the voters from their own experiences and perceptions rather than by "vote-seeking politicians." You can be sure that long before 1981 gives way to 1982 you will be seeing televised hearings on crime and hearing speeches on the same subject.

Peoples' fears about crime translate into tough attitudes toward lawbreakers. Take the recent findings from a predominantly white working-class area of a major eastern city. The voters, in the surveyed area, supported by Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan last November by 20 percentage points. They are solid Democrats. Here are the remedies they chose for handling crime: stricter sentences, 48 percent; death penalty, 39 percent; more law-and-order judges, 30 percent; stricter gun control, 28 percent; more money for police and equipment, 21 percent; and only 9 percent for more prisons. Obviously, multiple answers were accepted, but even with that the traditional Democratic anti-crime remedies trailed way behind severe punishment.

Politically, to be blunt, crime is more of a problem for Democrats than it is for Republicans. Democrats, in large cities, are more likely to be crime victims and to have the quality of their life diminished by crime than are the more affluent outside the cities. As a rule, Democrats cannot hire rent-a-cops to patrol their neighborhoods or buy their own AWACS to monitor all movements within two miles of the manor house. Most people must rely on public police protection, not purchased Pinkertons. The Senate Democrats have adopted, under the prodding of Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), an anti-crime legislative package. But they and all other politicans better understand that the public mood on crime in 1981 is deep and angry. And it will most probably be that way through 1982.