The 1980 election was an election of Big Issues. Federal candidates debated important subjects -- inflation and the economy; the size, scope and spending of the government, and the strength of the nation's defenses. These were issues that worked mostly for the Republicans, issues that the Republicans, led by Ronald Reagan, worked well.

This year, candidate polls agree with George Gallup, who revealed this week that unemployment is the country's most important issue to 48 percent of Americans, inflation to 23 percent, the economy in general to 16 percent and high interest rates to 8 percent. The first non-economic issue to make the list was "fear of war," which was mentioned by 6 percent of the respondents. Yet this campaign, with just over six weeks remaining, is being waged not on the big issues of the economic well-being of the American people, but on the tertiary, trivial and sometimes treacherous issues.

Twenty-one months after the inauguration of President Reagan, some Republican candidates actually seek election to federal office on the issue of the Panama Canal. Eleven million people are out of work. The nation's available line of credit is exhausted by corporate buccaneers off on extended ego trips conquering other companies and producing not a single new job. Does anyone even semi-seriously think American re-control of the Panama Canal would help Michigan or Alabama or Indiana? And incumbents should be retired, we are told, because they do not own property in the old home state. Perhaps this means renters should be ineligible for public office. Even the Vietnam amnesty -- which a Republican administration hasn't mentioned during nearly two years in office -- is being imaginatively recycled in some races.

The Great Communicator himself has not been much help. His recent frenzied efforts at rapprochement with his Old Right allies, who were upset at his increasing taxes, have led him to frame the election choices in terms of school prayer, a balanced budget amendment and, once again, a return to traditional family values. Maybe we should be grateful he has not brought his verbal skills to bear on the question of what went on at Yalta or who lost China.

In the 1974 campaign, the issues were government secrecy and the influence of campaign money. In 1978, the main questions were the Kemp-Roth tax bill and the Proposition 13 fever to cut government spending. Both those elections were actual previews of the presidential elections that followed them.

In this nasty and unfun political year of 1982, when the economy is on everybody's mind and on very few candidates' commercials, we are without clues about 1984. What the campaign commercials and dialogue tell us about this year's candidates is that they are generally as unsure as we are of the nation's economic future. It is an unhappy campaign and an unhappy time.