IF the Rev. Jesse Jackson wrests more delegates for the Democratic National Convention from party officials and opponents than he's won on the campaign trail, it will be due more to pressures for party unity than to the strength of his argument.
On the face of it, Jackson's complaint that he has won 19 percent of the primary vote so far but just 9 percent of the delegates appears to have merit. Jackson invokes the one-man, one-vote cry from the civil rights struggle to enfranchise minorities.
But in March 1982, when the Hunt commission wrote the rules for this year's nomination campaign, minority rights did not figure in their thinking.
And as a democratic principle, it is very consistent in the American system to represent territory as well as individuals. The federal legislative system according two senators per state, and representatives by districts with equivalent populations, reflects this principle. So does the Electoral College method for electing a president, a winner-take-all system by states.
The logical conclusion of Jackson's approach would be a national primary. But this would not overcome other problems shared by both national parties - the fact that activists more regularly vote in primaries, a need to bring party officials back into the process and to strengthen local and state party structures.
The Hunt commission, orchestrated by Mondale and Kennedy forces, then the big players in the game, tried to shape a process for 1984 that would (1) choose a winner early and (2) improve the prospect of a consensus choice. This would, they thought, put the party in better shape to win in November. Deliberately they made it difficult for an outsider to continue a challenge all the way to the convention. Rewarding a winner with more delegates than his strictly proportional share of the vote would enhance a front-runner's margin. Next week's California vote, a winner-take-all contest by congressional districts, could again accord the two white candidates, Mondale and Hart, with more delegates than they would get under a strictly proportional division by popular vote.
The commission miscalculated. It failed to take account of the still extraordinary impact of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, which could undo the careful front-loading of the remaining primary events.
If the process has reached a consensus, it is more on the ticket - Mondale-Hart or Hart-Mondale, with Jackson a strong wild card - than on an individual. Overall the pattern going into next week's finale has shown Mondale holding the support of the party establishment, including educators and unions, Hart attractive to younger and forward-looking Democrats, and Jackson evoking the fervor of minorities and others who feel left out of the system. Tonight's ''unity'' dinner in honor of George McGovern, with Hart and Mondale attending, is in part a recognition of what the primaries have shown.
Jackson's decision to skip the dinner keeps his grievances distinct for cashing in later. If Mondale is close to winning, say within 50 delegates after next Tuesday, the bargaining will be furious between then and the convention. If a Mondale-Hart ticket could be set, then Jackson could be brought into the ''unity'' circle with promises of more delegates, a commission to look into issues like the runoff primary, and a narrower proportionality gap.
It would be hard to prove that this spring's Democratic outcome would have been different under any other delegate formulation.
Jackson's candidacy has done a lot for the party in 1984, most party officials have concluded. His importance inside the unity circle, more than any argument about ''one man, one vote,'' may offer the best case for expanding his share of delegates at the San Francisco convention.