IT WAS AN awesome victory -- a political triumph for Ronald Reagan and, for the Democratic ticket, Dunkirk. Mr. Reagan has established beyond a doubt that he is the preeminent American politician of our time. His victory was in large measure a personal one, a stunning vindication of a 20-year-long political career that has, at almost every step along the way, confounded and rebuked conventional wisdom. To say this, however, is not to say that the vote was "only" for the person: a huge majority of the electorate was also voting its preference for a set of ideas and sentiments that Mr. Reagan has espoused.

We stress this last point because the voting machines across the country had hardly been switched off when spokesmen for all shades of opinion could be heard explaining the result in ways that confirmed their own prior positions and inclinations. Thus you had the right-wing ideologues claiming a mandate for an agenda far beyond any that Ronald Reagan has put forward, and you had others, on the left, disparaging the idea of any mandate at all. This second point of view insists that the whole thing is strictly flukey: a personal failure on Walter Mondale's part coupled with a purely personal triumph on Mr. Reagan's.

Both views are self-serving. Mr. Reagan ran as a very conservative candidate, but he repudiated some part of the far-right package to get elected, and this vote was not an endorsement of positions he moved away from. But, some liberal wishful thinkers notwithstanding, he did receive a mandate in this overwhelming vote; it was more than a personality-contest vote. It is foolish to claim that such a vote carries no clear political instruction with it.

The majority wants what Mr. Reagan offered. The limits on his ability to deliver that proceed from hard reality. The president is going to have to deal with an economy that is unlikely to respond to his blandishments the same way the electorate has done. With more Republicans in the House and a still-Republican Senate, he may have more congressional support, but he is still going to need to do some great magic to bring about that condition of economic balance and well-being that he promised in the campaign.

But these are thoughts for the political season to come. For the moment the message is that Ronald Reagan told the nation what he hoped to do, and the nation said Yes -- in a very big and wholly convincing way.

WALTER MONDALE lost this election in a big and unambiguous way: wipeout. It was a cruel result for him. To some extent his loss reflects the condition of his party -- fragmented, as always contentious, resembling a collection of quarreling medieval baronies. And to some extent it may have been a foregone result of the terrific internecine battling that went on before the convention. Certainly to a large extent it represents a shift in voter opinion on the issues and an acute need for the Democrats to "rethink," as the old term has it, their ways. And there is no denying that Mr. Mondale himself made some mistakes in his campaign.

But to say this is in no way to deny what seems to us the larger truth that this good and decent and strong-minded man made the best fight he could for his party, that he was and is much better than the prevailing half-truths allowed, and that he loses this campaign with honor and with his reputation enlarged.