The farmer's pitchfork launched a glob of horse manure toward the television camera lens and then, KAPOWIE! Bobby Goodman's freeze-frame technique stopped the barnyard missile just before impact and left it suspended there, filling the television screen and delivering an unmistakeable political message to the viewers.

Not classic television, perhaps, but it did what Goodman was paid to do. It was the punch line of a political message that no viewer could mistake. Goodman's client, running for the county administrator in Kentucky, was saying his opponent's claims were just so much horse-bleep.

When the votes were in, Goodman's impromptu stroke of television communication, born from the anxiety of a losing cause, was credited with snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. It awakened the electorate and altered the course of the campaign debate.

Few voters will ever meet or even hear Robert Goodman, a raffishly charming chap who works in the gracious anonymity of a restored grist mill in the outskirts of Baltimore. But he and a handful of others like him have as much to say as any office-seeker about the tone and style of the American electoral process today.

They are political consultants and pollsters, the natural-born offspring of the age of television and computers.

Few major election efforts are conducted these days without professional consultants. Their handiwork this year will help determine the outcomes of hundreds of campaigns for U.S. senator, member of Congress, governor and lesser stations.

They will play a large role in deciding how and where national candidates spend millions of campaign dollars -- by some estimates, an astonishing $500 million this year alone. By contrast, House and Senate campaigns in 1974 cost an estimated $75 million to $88 million, figures that seemed equally astonishing at the time.

The better-known industry figures include such persons as Roger Ailes, John Deardourff and Douglas Bailey, Joe Napolitan, David Garth and Matt Reese, Charles Guggenheim and Joseph Cerrell, Jill Buckley and Joe Rothstein, pollsters Richard Wirthlin and Robert Teeter and Lance Tarrance, Peter Hart and William Hamilton and Patrick Caddell, Robert Squier and Stuart Spencer and Tony Swartz. In many campaigns, they attract as much attention as the candidates they're working for.

They conduct sophisticated public opinion polls. They design television and radio commercials to portray their clients in the best -- and, some would say, the most innocuous -- way possible.

Some, such as Goodman, compose their own background music. They crank out direct-mail appeals and trade on computerized mailing lists. They probe mystical census tracts and purport to know the mind of the American voter.

They run telephone banks and show amateurs how to run campaigns. They speak an often indecipherable pseudoscuentific lingo. And they are paid vast amounts of money.

Robert Squier, one of the super-stars of political film making, had a thought about all this that smacked of his Bob Newhart-style humor, but it wasn't.

A student once asked what he needed to read to become a political consultant. Squier responded:

''I recommend ''The Prince'' by Machiavelli; McLuban on communications and any college text on abnormal psycholgy.''

In an era when computers talk to each other and America's collective eyes are glued to a television screen, the rise of the political consultant was inevitable. The face-to-face campaigning and debating of the Lincoln-Douglas tradition is dead and gone. There are chicken-and-egg arguments about what caused which, but in its various incarnations, the consulting industry's influence on the political process has become immense in the past 20 years.

Squier suggested that the great move of the American populace from the cities to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, in combination with the rapid growth of television (only 9 percent of the nation's households had TV in 1950, now more own televisions than refrigerators or indoor plumbing), had a powerful and disruptive influence on American politics.

Atomization of society, some have called it. A breakdown of political connective tissues, others term it. But the concurrent decline of urban political machines and loss of control over political patronage, money and voters' minds figure in as well.

''We moved ourselves from the old political systems,'' Squier said, ''and when that move took place, it made what we do inevitable. We needed a new way to communicate with people . . . The ward-heeler chain of command is short-circuited by this process. We put candidates on the television screen and make the case directly to the people . . . You could make a case that we didn't get rid of the bosses. We got electronic ones.''

Like it or not, Squier and his confreres have acquired a reputation as the new bosses, imbued with priestly wisdom and capable of working electoral sorcery. Like journalists, they call themselves ''professionals,'' equating themselves to physicians and engineers, but their trade is strikingly absent of training requirements and self-policing mechanisms.

These consultants and pollsters tend to sell their skills only to clients of the same party, but there are aberrations.

Goodman, for example, began with Democratic candidates, then moved to moderate Republicans. He has GOP candidates this year, but he also is guiding the reelection bid of Democratic Gov. Harry Hughes in Maryland.

The ordinarily Republican firm of Bailey & Deardourff, of McLean, is involved in the District of Columbia mayoral campaign of Democrat John Ray.

Such crossing of political lines generally is frowned upon in the industry, but business, after all, is business.

And some of the leading figures in the industry have set up a business to promote the business. A bipartisan speakers' bureau called ''The Campaign Works,'' aimed at selling their organizing skills to corporations, unions, and trade associations.

The consultants now routinely work overseas and, while most are strictly aligned either with Democrats or Republicans at home they often team up on foriegn campaigns. American consultants have master-minded campaigns in at least 30 countries from Israel and the Philippines to Venezuela and Spain.

Other spinoffs include several chatty newsletters, which report on developments in the industry, and a fancy new magazine called Campaigns & Elections, which carries scholarly political science tracts on campaign management as well as how-to-win suggestions for candidates.

And even higher education is getting into the act. Kent State University in Ohio now offers a master's degree in political science with a certificate in campaign management. Westminister College in Salt Lake City has an undergraduate degree program for aspiring campaign managers.

It may be that the consultants have helped accelerate the demise of the traditional political party structure, but it also can be argued that the parties fell of their own decrepitude and that the consultants are simply filling a need, showing candidates how to get the most out of their money.

It's the chicken-and-egg argument again. The need for managerial expertise has been increased by recent election-law change that allow politicians to tap huge new sources of campaign money.

U.S. Senate campaigns routinely cost more than $1 million. The Republican Congressional Campaign Committee calculates that the average winning campaign for a contested House seat this year will cost $400,000.

In turn, the high cost of television advertising, film production and computer technology increases the need for campaign money. And the broadcasting industry's refusal to make time available for serious political discussion reduces basic campaign approaches to simplistic sloganeering, something akin to selling soap and cars market studies, pretty faces, happy promises, cinema verite.

''The ward-heeler chain of command is short-circuited by this process. We put candidates on the television screen and make the case directly to the people. . . . You could make a case that we didn't get rid of the bosses. we got electronic ones.''

Business, pure and simple. Before Vince Breglio, executive director of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, commits money to a camapign, he makes certain the ced the process. Lincoln said the Whigs needed to make a perfect list of voters and then have a friend speak to each of them. All we are doing is refining that. . . . We are dealing with millions of voters. How can a man project his ideas to interest, to educate, to convert? Without the expertise of consultants, we'd be voting with voters who are know-nothings.''

Yet academics such as Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and author of a major study of the industry published last year, see the consultants as a pernicious and dangerous influence on the American political process.

In ''The Rise of Political Consultants,'' Sabato wrote that consultants have severely damaged the party system, put personality cults over party politics and ''accumulated almost unchecked and unrivaled power and influence in a system that is partly their handiwork.''

However, Murray Fishel, who teaches political science at Kent State University, sees another side to the business. He is part-time consultant on local campaigns.

''If we can't have the ideal, we have to deal with the real. TV has replaced the organization. . . . My view is that people will be better off with professionals involved in campaigns than without them. The vast majority of money spent now is wasted money. It is junk: billboards, posters, signs, emery boards.''

Scott Wolf, a part-time consultant to the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, added this thought: ''A frustration I find is that while many candidates are bright, they don't learn much about consultants, polling or fund raising. . . . Candidates show excessive deference to consultants and hope they are magicians.''

The professionals generally disclaim magical powers or excessive influence on the political process, but there is some uneasiness in the industry about the role of the consultant in campaigns.

Peter Hart, a leading Democratic pollster, put it this way: ''There is a brutality of the negative at work, and I think it is a difficulty we face as a country and as a democracy prior to the rise of the consulting industry and you see the voter turnout has been straight down. . . . What have we done to help that? We can't duck the responsibility.''

Matt Reese, a veteran Washington consultant who has handled campaigns from president on down since 1966, said, ''Ego, greed and ignorance get in our way. We ought to be more irrelevant than we are. People get in control of a campaign. We sort of take over, we become too important . . . the press relies on us too much.''

Charles Guggenheim, has been involved in more than 100 campaigns -- including four presidential races -- but he is withdrawing gradually, limiting his Georgetown film company, which mostly does documentaries, to two campaigns every two years.

''You become . . . so involved in winning that you no longer discuss issues and character on their merits. You are sparring, looking for ways to jab and get out. . . . They're not bad people. They're fundamentally in a bad business. . . . I think the system is sick,'' Guggenheim said.

In one form or another, political consultants have been around for ages.

Squier described Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th century Florentine, as not much more than a political schemer trying to get in on the action. ''The Prince,'' a classic blueprint for political machination, was something of a precursor of today's ''action memo'' from a consultant to his client.

Squier once proposed that the American Association of Political Consultants give a ''machiavelli Award'' for best campaign of the year. The association saw no humor in the idea.

Professional political consulting in the new style had its beginnings in the 1930s in California. But many trace the start of the modern era to the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign of 1960.

Kennedy, known as the first television president, used an array of polling and organizational techniques such as converting Lou Harris' polling data into campaign strategy.

Since then, the consulting industry has soared along with the revolution in electronic communications, computers and opinion-sampling skills.

The pollsters are better able to target their quarry; television and the growing cable industry can put a candidate in virtually every living room; computers and direct-mail techniques can single out and reach voter groups with special interests.

''We've really gotten away from the notion of mystique after the Kennedy election,'' said Robert Teeter of Detroit, one of the top Republican pollsters. ''There was a perception that it was done with incense over the computer. Polling, for example, is a fundamental kind of information and politicians have followed business to some degree, in that they operate better with more information.''

Teeter's polls on issues will be used by the media consultants and campaign managers in about 30 U.S. Senate and gubernatorial campaigns and about 70 House campaigns this year.

For all this, there is no way to measure how much they actually contribute to electoral success or failure. Unlike managing a baseball team, the bottom line of the consulting business is not necessarily measured in wins and losses. No one, for instance, blamed consultant Matt Reese when his client, Indiana Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh, was defeated for reelection in 1980.

''Just as prospective gamblers may lunge too eagerly at 'systems' that appear to offer the magic solution to their problems but that are in reality only sophisticated methods for losing their funds,'' Mark Atlas, a political analyst, wrote in Campaigns & ELection, ''so too political campaigners may grasp purported 'revolutionary' improvements in campaign technologies too quickly for their own good.''