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'84 in context

The battle over the interpretation of an election's outcome, even before the votes are cast, is itself part of the broader election struggle. It is an effort to set the expectations for the opposing side on election day and to establish optimum criteria for claiming success. Terms like ''landslide,'' ''mandate,'' and ''realignment'' seem to slip into the lexicon of rallying cries in the closing days of an emotional campaign.

The basic division among interpreters is between those who tend to see elections in terms of broader continuities and those who tend to see results as evidence of sudden, radical turns.

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The sudden-turners have a built-in constituency. A lopsided Reagan victory would be tactically useful to those who may side with him on ideological grounds in their perennial effort to suggest the body politic's tide is with them. It would be useful, too, to a second administration, which realizes from experience that the time for innovation in a new term is short - at most a year or two; a burst of confidence from the election might provide the requisite early momentum. This is one reason the Reagan camp has begun to invest the President's and vice-president's time in states where the three dozen or so tight congressional races could enhance the impression of an across-the-board GOP sweep.

If President Reagan wins some 56 or 58 percent of the vote and Walter Mondale some 42 or 44 percent, which both camps now are citing as a reasonable range based on polling evidence so far, this would be an impressive GOP victory. If, indeed, the Republicans pick up some 25 seats in the House, as they say they well may, this too would be impressive. But both these presidential and congressional outcomes fit in a larger pattern that makes them look less exceptional.

In the House races, it would mean the GOP recovered from the 26-seat loss it suffered in 1982 and returned to where it was in 1980 when the Reagan cycle began. For the Republicans, the message would be that they have yet to build the allegiance and strength at the lower levels of government, in congressional district and state politics, which is one test of a realignment in American politics.

In the presidential race, the Democrats would have repeated their average of 43 percent of the popular vote in the previous four elections back to 1968. This White House election looks in some ways like 1968, when Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were in a near tie at 43 percent, and third-party candidates, chiefly George Wallace, won 14 percent. In 1972 George McGovern won only 38 percent of the vote as the Wallace voters, among others, helped Nixon carry 61 percent. In other words, this election would reconfirm the decided advantage held by Republican candidates for the presidency for almost three decades, except for the handicap years of 1964 and 1976 when the candidates were seen as either too radical or bore the weight of scandal. In 1976 the Democrats had the advantage of a Southern candidate and an unelected incumbent opponent and still barely won. Back in 1960 the Democrats won with the help of a recession.

If the 1984 election turns out as they hope, the GOP should feel chiefly gratified that their presidential advantage, based in the South and West, has persisted in behalf of pragmatic and ideological candidates. The Democrats, given their record in five successive campaigns, must face the reality that they have failed to find a compelling message to persuade Americans they should again manage the executive branch of government. For them, it is a limitation that goes beyond the personal quests of Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, and Mondale.

The US Senate races fall in the middle of this schism between presidential and congressional district elections in the United States, with the advantage split between the GOP and the Democrats. Expected slight Democratic gains will leave the new Senate evenly divided.

Looking for a programmatic mandate in this election may be futile. The likely winner for the presidency has eluded his opponent's attempts to commit him to specific economic, arms control, and foreign-policy plans of action. On many issues, such as the level of defense spending, the public's view is nearer the underdog's.

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Obviously other factors - leadership style, a desire for continuity, and so forth - are also at work. But it may be useful to voters to consider that their decision next week has a context larger than immediate events, candidates, and arguments might suggest.

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