Frances Matthews is a foot soldier of American politics, and today was her day.

As Election Day dawned across the country, the politicians, pollsters, and public relations people had nothing to do but wait for returns; the only hot air needed today was that used to fill balloons for victory parties.

But for Matthews, a wisecracking, 5-foot-2-inch bundle of energy who is the Republican "area coordinator" for a 16-county swath of the high plains here in southeastern Colorado, Election Day meant an 18-hour stretch of hard work.

Matthews' work is the nitty-gritty of politics -- the organizational effort of finding voters and getting them to the polls, tracking down lost ballots, rotating poll watchers and standing guard in case Democrats challenge a loyal GOP voter at the polling place.

It is an invisible and unglamorous side of political life, but one every serious candidate considers essential. Some races are won on issues, some on oratory, but at least as many finally turn on organization -- on getting out the vote.

That is the job of Frances Matthews and tens of thousands of others like her from coast to coast who pull up their sleeves and go to work for the candidate or issue of their choice in election after election.

"Why do we work this hard for free?" Matthews said. "You could call it insanity. Or you could call it being part of a free country. There's some satisfaction in becoming a part of the democratic system."

"My husband says I've been working 23 hours per day on this campaign," Matthews said today at GOP headquarters in an old firehouse here. "But that's not true: it's only been 10 or 12 hours per day for the last month or so."

Today her job was to supervise a far-flung team of precinct captains, poll watchers, telephone callers, drivers and assorted hangers-on as they delivered the vote for GOP candidates ranging from President Reagan and Sen. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.) to Warren Gilbertson and James Brewer, the party's nominees for the Board of Education and the Pueblo County Commission.

As campaign workers bustled around her -- setting up tonight's victory party and adorning the headquarters with red, white, and blue streamers and balloons -- Matthews placed a long series of calls to her 110 precinct captains to make sure that each was on the job, delivering reliable Republican voters to the polls.

A computer at the state Republican headquarters had assigned a "vote goal" to each precinct, which is the geographic area served by one polling place. Matthews, in turn, had directed all her precinct captains to find that number of GOP supporters and see to it that they voted before the polls closed.

"How do you do it? You sit on the telephone every day for a month," she said.

"We get a list from the county clerk of every registered voter in the precinct. Then you call every Republican and make sure they'll be out to vote. If they need a ride, you drive 'em. If they want to vote absentee, you get that ballot out to them before the deadline. If they miss the deadline, you see if the clerk will give you an emergency ballot and get that in."

"When we got up this morning, Frances already had a computer printout on our front step," said Mike Deacon, a local insurance agent who had been corralled into running the 106th Precinct for the Republicans.

"My wife and I spent the morning on the phone calling our people. We'll spend the day driving them to vote, and then at about 5 o'clock we'll go back and call everybody who hasn't turned out yet."

A key part of this operation is the poll watcher, a party volunteer who sits at the polling place and checks off each voter against a master list.

"As soon as one of my Republicans comes in, I mark the name," said Mildred Rea, the GOP captain for Pueblo's 51st Precinct, sitting next to the voting booth at Pueblo Community College. "Now, for example," Rea went on, "I see that Gus Evinson hasn't voted yet. He usually comes in early in the morning. So I'm going to go give him a call and remind him to get over here."

Back at headquarters, meanwhile, Matthews stepped gingerly through an ocean of balloons and faced each minute's new crisis:

"Frances! Somebody needs to know where people in Regency Park go to vote."

"Frances! They need a notary for an emergency ballot over at the hospital."

"Frances! The Democrats are handing out anti-Reagan flyers within the 100-foot limit at East School."

Amid all this hullabaloo, Matthews conceded that she had barely had time to think about whether her candidates would win or lose.

"I've been doing this in Pueblo County for 13 years now, and Republicans hardly ever win here," she said. "But this year, with Reagan and Armstrong and GOP House candidate Mike Strang, it looks like we may make it."

But she still was worried, partly because worrying is second-nature to a political coordinator and partly because the volunteer operation this year has not been up to snuff.

"Our problem is, we have this new breed of cat called the political professional, and he wants to get paid. And then he wants to pay the people on the phone bank or the door-to-door. And that creates a lot of resentment among my volunteers," she said.

"It creates resentment in me, too," she added. "I know every precinct in this area by heart. And then some hired consultant comes in and says, 'At the political institute, the book said to do it this way.' And he won't listen when I tell him that stuff won't work in Pueblo."

The payoff for volunteers sometimes comes in the form of a job in government, but that's not something that appeals to Matthews. "I do politics, not government," she said.

"When all this is over, I still have to take out the phones and close up the headquarters," she said. "And then next January I'll probably find myself out organizing for the '86 campaign."