ONE of the most striking features of this presidential campaign is the contrast between the two levels at which it is being waged. At one, the contest is painfully superficial and hard to explain. At the other level, though, this campaign has structure, meaning, and predictability. The first level is the world of the elections industry - of television, polls, the press, and campaign technicians. Here, all politics is image. The industry pays lip service to the importance of substance but is in fact preoccupied with style. It values an adroit one-liner more than a thousand carefully chosen words, and it counts a meaningless gaffe against a candidate much more than a flawed policy stand.
The apparatus through which the industry presents candidates would not allow an Aristotle to escape banality. Its centerpiece is the celebrated 30-second sound bite. Presumably on the assumption that a president needs the skills of a good quiz-show host - an ability to think on his feet and toss out witty retorts - the industry makes the televised debates key tests of strength. When these tests make the candidates look superficial, the industry choruses, ``Give us substance.''
Confused, we are left to wonder how the events of the Republican convention sufficed to bring George Bush from 17 points behind Michael Dukakis to six points ahead of him (according to ``before'' and ``after'' polls taken by CBS News and the New York Times). Time magazine tells us that its poll of Sept. 27-28 shows pluralities of the public believing that the middle class and the poor, the young and the old, are all worse off as a result of Ronald Reagan's policies - but at the same time shows a large majority believing Mr. Reagan's policies have been good for the country! If politics is at its core a quest for positive ``images,'' how is it that George Bush and Dan Quayle are leading Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen? Is it because a ``new Bush'' emerged at the Republican convention, replacing the old wimpy patrician? Have voters been bamboozled by posturing on the pledge of allegiance? Perhaps Mr. Dukakis is somehow failing to present his ``message'' effectively. Or maybe his handlers are not as good as Mr. Bush's.
The second level involves a more fundamental competition of party philosophies, against the backdrop of economic conditions and social change. For all the emphasis in the first level on campaign imagery, there is no evidence that any presidential election in this century has been so decided. Candidates have won or lost for substantial reasons: whether their parties' ideas were currently in favor, for example, and whether voters thought conditions justified retaining the incumbents or booting them out.
From the beginning, this year's election has been contested within a structure that favors the Republicans. One element of this structure is Reagan - who is leaving office more popular than he entered. Such popularity is partly transferable to the party - as Roosevelt proved half a century ago. Under Reagan the Republicans have drawn even with the Democrats overall in party identification and have pulled ahead among young voters. No American president has ever committed himself as fully to the election of his successor as Reagan has to Bush.
A second element in this election's structure involves the public response to current conditions - in the economy, foreign affairs, etc. Presidential elections are always in part referendums on national performance. This is an incumbents' election: Most voters think things are going fairly well and are thus inclined to give the ``ins'' another chance.
To understand the third main element of this structure, we note that in the last five presidential elections - 1968 through 1984 - the Republicans garnered 53 percent of all ballots cast, the Democrats just 42 percent. Only one previous set of five elections has been decided more decisively: that of 1932-48, when the Democrats won 55 percent of the vote to the Republicans' 43 percent.
This is not by chance. The Democrats' 12-point lead in the New Deal elections came about in part because their approach to governing was more popular than the GOP's. Likewise the Republican's 11-point margin over the last five contests reflects their current edge.
An election structure can be overcome - when the disadvantaged party convinces a majority of voters that its candidates are better than its opponents - but it can never be ignored. Beyond the superficiality of the campaign the elections industry is bringing to us lies a contest shaped by forces far more substantial.
Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.