Washington, D.C., is not a normal place around election time. This year, the city seems somewhat edgy. The mood is not so much one of election anticipation as a desire for the long march of the '84 campaign to end.
Campaigning for national office, after all, is an activity that for the most part goes on far away from the nation's capital. Washington has but one representative, who is nonvoting; no senators; and three electoral votes for president. The city is so Democratic that Ronald Reagan has as much chance of carrying the district as the Potomac River does of running backwards.
Accordingly, official D.C. seems strangely empty. ''He's not here; he's out campaigning,'' says the secretary to a high congressional aide. ''You didn't really expect him to be here, did you?''
Many of the few folks left on Capitol Hill view the today's election with dread, because for them it could spell sudden unemployment, announced on national television. ''No thanks,'' says the legislative director of an endangered freshman Democrat, when invited to an election-night party. ''I want to sit at home and suffer alone.''
Lobbyists and lawyers, whose work often depends on government action, or at least on having politicians around to take out to lunch, find things slow around election time. This year, the sense of suspended animation is intensified by the fact that the presidential race has for so long seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Even self-proclaimed ''yellow-dog Democrats'' (people who, in the legendary phrase, would ''vote for a yellow dog in the road before a Republican''), have been dispirited by Walter Mondale's problems.
''I'm already planning a mourning lunch on Nov. 7,'' sighs one committed Democrat.
It seems the only people here who are really excited about the today's elections are the protesters who regularly line Pennsylvania Avenue on the north side of the White House. To a frequent observer, these demonstrators have become more strident and more numerous. They add to the city's air of strangeness at election time.
On Halloween, for example, 20 people in animal masks were walking up and down in front of the White House. Each, according to his species, carried a sign attacking the President: ''Reagan, You're LION to us''; ''ReVEAL Your Tax Plan''; ''Retire the Old GOAT.''
The parade stopped traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue; eventually a squad of park police arrived to make sure things didn't get out of hand.
The Reagan administration considers these protesters a nuisance, and has embarked on a campaign to limit their freedom of action. The animal parade, for instance, had to keep moving because Park Service regulations don't permit stationary demonstrators in the central 20 yards of sidewalk in front of the White House. Protesters are no longer allowed to stand or lean their signs against the White House fence.
But perhaps Washington is not unusual in the respect that it is mostly the far left or right, not the general populace, that considers politics an outdoor participant sport. The days when 10 acres of people will show up for a rally, as happened during the William Henry Harrison campaign, are gone.
Who today could believe that Grover Cleveland could lead a parade of 40,000 in New York City, all chanting of Cleveland's opponent, ''Blaine, Blaine, The Monumental Liar From the State of Maine''?
In Washington such politics was symbolized by Rhodes Tavern, the ramshackle two-story building next to the Treasury which was the oldest structure downtown.
Rhodes Tavern had seen just about every inaugural parade and political march in the city's history, but it was torn down this fall, after a years-long court battle.
With Rhodes Tavern gone, the election just doesn't seem the same.