It was an election for the record books. Ronald Reagan's triumphant, coast-to-coast march back into the White House now stands among the biggest such victories ever achieved. It ranks with Lyndon B. Johnson's romp over Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Richard M. Nixon's drubbing of George McGovern in 1972. In electoral votes - 525 to 13 - Mr. Reagan's margin compares with 1936, when Franklin D. Roosevelt shellacked Alfred Landon 523 to 8 .
The magnitude of what the President achieved seems even greater when one looks at Election '84 region by region, group by group, state by state.
Reagan overpowered Walter F. Mondale and the Democrats almost everywhere. He won among men and women, Italian-Americans and Polish-Americans, Northerners and Southerners, young urban professionals and farmers, high school graduates and college graduates, Protestants and Roman Catholics.
There were only a few areas of resistance. Blacks, the most staunchly Democratic group, voted 8 to 1 for Mr. Mondale. Jewish voters, possibly concerned by Reagan's courtship of Roman Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants, went better than 2 to 1 for Mondale, according to ABC News exit polls. Families earning less than $5,000 were also strongly for Mondale.
But those were the exceptions. The more remarkable aspect of the vote was the unity of the nation in this decision. From North to South, from East to West, Americans spoke as if with one voice.
The Reagan victory margin was generally largest in the Rocky Mountain West and in the South. Once again, Utah was Reagan's strongest state, where he got about 77 percent of the vote. But heavy support of around 60 percent and more could also be found in New England states like Vermont and New Hampshire, Midwestern industrial states such as Ohio and Indiana, farm-belt states like Kansas and the Dakotas, and a scattering of Eastern states such as New Jers% hx . /oare.
Even a harsh Reagan critic like US House Speaker Thomas P. O'.o MN. (D) of Massachusetts was moved to say that the President is ''the most popular figure in the history of our government.... No candidate that we could have put up could have withstood Reagan this year.''
Mr. O'Neill called the election a ''landslide - the biggest thing in the history of this nation.''
Certainly Reagan's personal victory was just about everything that his campaign aides could have hoped. During the course of this year, they saw the race move from a dead-heat in January to a yawning margin on Election Day. The Democratic defeat left some party leaders, such as Georgia chairman Bert Lance, worried about the party's future.
How did Reagan do it? That will be something historians try to explain. For now, some of the best indicators come from the exit polls conducted by a number of news-gathering organizations on election day. These surveys can tell us which issues were most important to voters, how Vabious groups voted, and what some of the long-term trends are. Most of the figures in this report are drawn from ABC News exit studies.
Reagan's broai port, according to the exit polls, was grounded in several broad areas, all of which have historically been very important in elections.
At the top of the list are a number of economic issues where the President struck a responsive chord in the electorate. The most important single issue named by his supporters was ''government spending,'' which Reagan emphasized over and over during his campaign.
The President noted during a nationwide TV address on election eve that he had reduced the rate of growth in government spending by more than half, despite a sharp rise in spending for the military. Voters obviously liked that. Some 23 percent of his supporters called that issue the major reason that they voted for him.
Another large group - 13 percent of Reagan supporters - said the prime reason for backing him was his opposition to tax increases. Those two issues, tax increases and government spending, together accounted for more than one-third of all Reagan support.
Reagan's enthusiasm for boosting military strength was crucial to 18 percent of Reagan's supporters. Another 11 percent said his tough foreign policy stance - an issue related to the Reagan military buildup - was important. Together, they also accounted for nearly one-third of his backing.
inally, Reagan collected a scattering of support from a number of other issues: the improving jobs picture, his support for social security, and confidence that he would do more than the Democrats about the budget deficits.
But issues alone do not explain all of Reagan's clout. There were other, less tangible, things. Reagan voters saw the President as a ''strong leader'' (40 percent cited that quality). They also felt that he would ''keep America strong'' (20 percent mentioned that), and that he would ''keep America prosperous'' (21 percent). Other factors cited: that he was very experienced (9 percent), that he was fair to all groups (9 percent), and that he was ''pro-religion'' (5 percent).
Mondale's strength on issues lay with the things that he talked about during the campaign: help for the needy, reducing the budget deficits, protecting social security, cutting unemployment. Voters most liked Mondale as one who would be fair to everyone, and as a leader who would keep the nation out of war.
Americans are feeling pretty good about things, and that greatly helped Reagan.
Surveys showed that 49 percent of all voters felt they were ''better off'' now than four years ago. About 31 peraent said their situation was ''the same.'' Only 20 percent said they were ''worse off.''
This was a crucial gauge. To illustrate: Those who felt they were better off went 84 to 15 in favor of Reagan. Those who felt they were worse off went 85 to 14 for Mondale. The pocketbook, as usual, remains a pivotal issue.
Voters said a number of other issues also influenced them. About 15 percent said the abortion issue was very important.
Two-thirds of those voters backed Reagan. About 10 percent said the proposed Equal Rights Amendment was a burning topic. Three-quarters of them went with Mondale. Ten percent said Reagan's age concerned them. Almost all of those voters went to Mondale. The nuclear freeze was in the minds of 16 percent of the voters, and two-thirds of those voters backed Mondale. Union endorsements were a factor to 6 percent of the voters.
But those endorsements apparently antagonized as many voters as they convinced, since that 6 percent split almost 50-50.
Geraldine A. Ferraro
The first woman to run on a major party ticket seemed to have little effect on the outcome.
The ABC surveys found that only 1 voter in 10 felt that Ms. Ferraro influenced their vote one way or the othern Of Phose who did, 58 percent voted for Mondale. But 42 percent voted for Reagan, which indicates the backlash was almost as great as the ''frontlash.''
The surveys also show that the effect of the debcte between Ms. Ferraro and Vice-President George Bush was about even. Eight percent of the voters said the debate was ''very important'' in deciding how they would vote, but those 8 percent split almost evenly.
Analysts will look with keen interest at Ms. Ferraro's impact on various groups. Despite her presence on the ticket and her close identification with Italian-Americans, analysts say Mondale even lost the Italian-American women's vote by 54 to 46.
One aspect of this election that worries Democratic insiders is that the two parties appear to be splitting more and more along black-white lines. In Mississippi, for example, 91 percent of all blacks backed Mondale, while 85 percent of all whites supported Reagan.
That kind of trend could spell long-term trouble for Democrats. They have now lost the white vote in every presidential race since 1964.
Meanwhile, Mondale told reporters after his defeat that he will never again seek elective office. He said today's polGics really doo suit him very much. Anyone seeking the White House today, he said, needs to master television - a medium on which all sides agree Reagan is superb. Says Mondale:
''I've never warmed up to television and, in fairness, it's never warmed up to me.''