Of the 50th presidential election in American history, it can be said it was robbed of suspense, but not of meaning.

This was the one, voters were told over and over for month after month during the longest and most expensive and wearying of election years, that was preordained.

It was to be the Ronald Reagan landslide, both in electoral and popular votes. The polls said so, and the polls were right.

By 8 o'clock, three full hours before voting ended on the West Coast, CBS had declared Reagan reelected. But you didn't need a network projection to call this one. For all practical purposes, it was over almost as soon as it began.

The polls had been vindicated with a vengeance. Reagan and the Republicans rolled to a great, crushing victory of massive proportions as forecast by those polls. And this historic landslide did have coattail effects -- but not big ones.

The Republicans were projected to pick up at most 20 seats in the House, where Reagan had hoped to forge a working majority.

Democrats lost a Senate race they had expected to win in Kentucky, but won close contests in Iowa and West Virginia, where the polls had given them a slight edge. So Much for Underdog Upsets

Chalk up one for scientific samples. Discount for now those instinctive yearnings among the public for Election Day upsets and surprises, for the traditional American desire to see an underdog battle back against historic odds and at least do "better than expected."

It was Harry S Truman's underdog mantle and the cheering sound of the big crowds he attracted in the closing days of his campaign that sustained Walter Mondale in his hopes for an upset against a popular incumbent president.

In the final days of the campaign, Mondale ran as much against the polls, it seemed, as against the president.

He implored the people to prove the pollsters wrong. But as the votes came in, it immediately became certain his upset hope was not to be. So Mondale took his place among American history's all-time biggest political losers.

Not that the polls were all that scientific or useful a guide to voting behavior.

This Election Day began with the major national polls agreeing on only one major fact about the 1984 outcome -- the presidential winner.

Voters who set out for their polling places to cast their ballots yesterday after studying the final forecasts found that the predicted Reagan winning-spread ranged from 10 to 25 percentage points of the electorate. That's some spread.

Assuming that between 90 and 95 million Americans exercised their franchise yesterday, it meant that some of the nation's better-known public opinion surveys were going to be anywhere from 10 million to 23 million votes off the final mark.

Those who predicted the great sweeping landslide were correct.

But it also meant something else about this Election Day -- and, perhaps more significantly, about those to come:

However incorrect some of the projections on certain of the races -- or even on the final presidential vote totals -- might have been, in the larger sense, reliance on the polls seemed to have altered the way presidential campaigns are both waged and perceived by the public.

And last night's results seem certain to make that even more of a powerful factor in American elections.

In the romantic school of American politics, presidential elections are (or used to be) invested with a mystical and mysterious quality almost beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals.

Elections begin somewhere in the distant north, "invisible as always" as the journalist-historian Theodore H. White described them in "The Making of the President," his narrative history of the 1960 election. After the early morning casting of the first of the nation's presidential ballots by sturdy descendants of Yankee farmers and shopkeepers, it sweeps in an endless wave across the continent to form the collective will of the people.

Elections have all the elements of great drama -- surprise, suspense and a battle for the highest of stakes -- as they provide a textbook example of democracy in action.

Not this time. Two elements are entirely missing this year: surprise and suspense.

Even the mystical hamlet that White chose to begin the book that became so influential in the chronicling of campaigns since, offered no insights into the workings of the most crucial aspect of the democratic process in 1984, the selection of the next president of the United States.

Oh, the citizens of Dixville Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, voted first, as usual, in the early minutes after midnight on Election Day. The outcome was 29 to 1: the Reagan landslide at work.

The voters of Dixville Notch were reaffirming what the country already had been told to be true: that it was all over before it began.

That sense of the inevitable made this Election Day one of the most anticlimactic in memory.

One scene summed it up. At a cafeteria lunch line, in the center of Washington a few blocks from the White House, the man behind the cash register called out to any and all, and none in particular:

"Is it over yet?"

He meant, of course, the election. He was met with shrugs of resignation or indifference. Even the Reagan voters present, and statistically there had to have been some, gave off no sign of exultation of celebration or emotion of any kind. It was all to be expected.

If the nation's capital offered any clues to national sentiment, those emotions were absent. At Lafayette Park, where traditionally crowds of the curious and the concerned gather to express their feelings on great national questions, hardly a handful congregated in the crisp but pleasant fall weather. At lunch time, park benches were deserted and neither groups of protestors nor political adherents of any stripe were present.

Facing the White House, now stripped of layers of paint accumulated over the many decades as part of a refurbishing operation, were the same big signs you can see displayed on any recent day:


Is The


Live by the


Die by the


No one paid them any attention. The park, so often a place of protests over national policies in other days, was as quiet as the nearly deserted streets carrying what little traffic there was slowly past the Executive Mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The same seemed so of the country at large.

One aspect of the way the nation reacted yesterday was worth recording. On Wall Street, the home of the nation's most capricious political touts, the stock market remained open on Election Day for the first time since organized securities-trading began in the United States nearly 200 years ago, which just about coincided with the first presidential election. From the opening gun, the market surged forward, closing with a gain of almost 15 points in the Dow Jones index.

The reason, it was said, concerned news other than the presidential election prospects of the favored Ronald Reagan among the leaders of American capitalism. It had to do, ironically, with what was read by the big traders as an easing of monetary policy by the Federal Reserve, and thus a promise of lower interest rates.

The irony was that this easing occurs because of a weakening of the nation's economic recovery -- the very recovery that has provided Reagan with so great a boost for his reelection. It points, as one big Wall Street player told this reporter late yesterday, to a kind of slowdown that could presage a recession, but it came too late to do the Democrats and Walter Mondale any good in the politics of 1984.

If that's correct, it's only one of the factors that never materialized for the Democrats this year. It too, it seems, was as preordained as the polls.