WASHINGTON -- If there is one certainty about American politics, it is that the leaders of both parties will be making extravagant claims Tuesday night about the meaning of the off-year elections. None of them should be taken too seriously.
But it would be a mistake to believe that politicians won't learn some things from the results Tuesday.
Moreover, because politics is an imitative business, those lessons will have some effect on the conduct of the mid-term congressional and gubernatorial elections next year.
The notion that gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia and mayoral elections in a half-dozen major cities tell us anything about what the voters think of President Clinton or national directions doesn't hold water.
Political professionals and poll-takers know that voters rarely make two-step decisions -- that is, cast a vote to send a message to someone not involved in that election.
But the shape of the campaigns already appears to have identified some issues that will get more attention in the future.
The prime example, of course, is the crime question that has been an influential and perhaps dominant issue in the mayoral contest in New York and the gubernatorial election in New Jersey.
To some extent, this lesson already has been learned -- the best evidence being the attention President Clinton suddenly has been lavishing on his own crime program.
And one result of the 1993 elections can be dramatically improved prospects for the Brady Bill establishing a five-day waiting period for the purchase of a handgun -- a position that is widely credited with helping Democratic Gov. Jim Florio bolster his campaign against Republican Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey.
There are, however, more subtle lessons that may be taught Tuesday night.
One of the questions the professionals have been asking is whether the mood of the electorate in 1992 has been sustained for another year.
The lessons they drew from the unseating of an incumbent president, George Bush, is, first, that voters want candidates who promise practical solutions to immediate domestic concerns and, second, that they are impatient with negative campaigning.
The election that may be most closely examined is the contest for governor of New Jersey.
Democrat Florio was considered a hopeless case a year ago because of
the hot reaction against the $2.8 billion tax increase he promulgated in his first year in office.
But Florio has been making the case that the tax plan has proven itself by putting the state and its economy back on track.
Thus, if Florio survives, one inference certain to be drawn is that it is possible for a politician to make hard decisions and then win approval for them, however grudging.
Such a reading could mean that the odds would improve next year on other governors with similar histories, including Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California.
Another may be that President Clinton should plow ahead with his grand plans for domestic reforms and rely upon the electorate giving him credit in 1996.
On the other hand, if Florio is defeated Tuesday -- by an opponent whose campaign has been badly flawed -- the result will be seen as the ultimate proof that raising taxes is pure poison.
The entrails of the New York mayoral election also will be studied.
Mayor David N. Dinkins has been in as much hot water as Florio, largely because he has been seen as halting and ineffectual in dealing with crime.
But his challenger, Rudolph Giuliani, has been carrying the baggage of being a Republican in a 5-to-1 Democratic city and a prosecutor appealing to a congenitally liberal electorate.
If Giuliani unseats Dinkins, one message will be that voters are willing to take a chance with a candidate who promises competence in office, even if they have reservations about his temperament as polls suggest is the case with Giuliani.
But a Democratic success in New Jersey or a Republican triumph in New York would have essentially nothing to do with the image of the two parties in other elections next year or in 1996.
Off-year elections may provide some clues about what's on the minds of the voters, but they are only clues.