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Reflections on presidential campaigns

WHEN political reporters turn public speakers, they invariably utter this refrain: There is too much coverage of the elections as though they were horse races. There should be much more reporting on the issues.

A high-minded sentiment, to be sure. Somehow journalists always fall into racehorse reporting prompted, no doubt, by evidence that readers or viewers are more fascinated with ''who's ahead?'' than with how the candidates stand on issues.

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One problem with the last campaign was that the media, particularly TV, tried to give the impression that it was a close race - that Ronald Reagan, after the first debate, was on the verge of being defeated.

But anyone who kept his eye on the states - where the real, electoral-vote election takes place - would have known that Reagan had all the regions and almost all the states in his pocket. It never was a real horse race. It was a one-sided affair from beginning to end, and good reporting would have said precisely that.

A worse problem was the television practice of telling Americans the state-by-state results in the race as soon as they were known. Some West Coast residents didn't bother to vote for president because they knew from watching television, before their polls closed, that Mr. Reagan was reelected. This didn't affect the outcome of the presidential contest. But it could have shaped some state and local contests.

Some restraint was shown by the networks in ''calling'' state contests before the polls closed in those particular states. But by the state-by-state announcements of the presidential contest, people in the West knew before their polls closed that the election was over.

What's needed now is either some new restraint exercised by TV in announcing state-by-state results on the presidential race - or a blackout of TV coverage in the West until polls are closed there.

The stubbornness by TV to police itself regarding its impact on presidential elections is based on the theory that the public has ''the need to know'' - freedom of the press. But that theory is misapplied here. Our society needs information that helps to make its governmental system work. It doesn't need information that throws a monkey wrench into its democratic processes.

One other complaint with respect to the media is that the cost of putting a reporter on a presidential plane for the entire campaign has become prohibitively high for most newspapers. This means that television and the well-heeled print media do most of the firsthand coverage of these campaigns. Obviously this also means that the readers of the ''left out'' media are the losers.

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The widespread talk of presidential election reform has disappeared now that the election is over. Leaders of both parties were unhappy with the current presidential primaries, where the nominee is selected by so few voters. There was talk of a move toward regional primaries - three primaries to be held on consecutive weeks in the three time zones in order to involve more voters.

Every four years there's a big move for election reform. The idea of reducing the presidential campaign to a few weeks - following the British approach - has gained attention. But that, too, has been during the election period - when most Americans have wearied of the never-ending campaign.Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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