Backers of a slew of failed ballot measures scratched their heads Wednesday, hypothesizing that voters were fed up this Election Day _ with fat-cat contributors to gun control in Washington and a forestry fight in Maine, with lawmakers who demanded a second Oregon vote on assisted suicide, and possibly with whole ballot business itself.

From coast to coast, Americans passed on change this year. They rejected a repeal of affirmative action in Houston, a plan to limit clearcutting in Maine, a sales tax increase for new professional football and baseball stadiums in Pittsburgh. The Navajos said no to casino gambling, as they did in 1994, and New Yorkers turned down chances to revise their state constitution and borrow $2.4 billion to build and repair schools.

Every measure that failed prompted theories from disappointed supporters to explain why, but analysts and victorious proponents agreed that Tuesday's votes will help steer the direction of some of the nation's most divisive social debates.

In Washington, losing ballot authors said they were ``swept away by the politics of no.''

Voters there summarily rejected stricter gun control laws, workplace protections for gays, legalized pot for medicinal use and a provision allowing patients to keep their doctors when they switch jobs or health plans.

``Voters got the perception that many of the initiatives were backed by special interest groups, and that turned them off,'' said Brett Bader, a political consultant. ``And in a ballot crowded with controversial initiatives, voters are going to vote no.''

Oregonians, apparently indignant that they were asked to repeal their 1994 vote legalizing assisted suicide, voted no 60 percent to 40 percent _ wider than the 51-49 percentage margin that passed the law in the first place.

It was the first time the Legislature ever tried to send back, unchanged, a law passed by citizens, and even the lawmakers who had backed the repeal _ under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, the American Medical Association and anti-abortion groups _ said it was a mistake.

``By turning the same thing back, we opened ourselves to the argument that we were just trying to stack the deck,'' said Democratic Rep. Bryan Johnston of Salem. Legislators should have offered voters other choices as well, he said.

Houston's vote to continue its affirmative action program, coming just a year after California's decision to junk policies affecting state jobs and schools, will likely affect brewing battles over programs in Washington, Florida and Ohio.

President Clinton said Wednesday he felt ``profoundly grateful'' for the Houston result and predicted it could ``well have some national significance.''

``That's a second version of the debate that was held in California, and I expect that debate will be held in other communities throughout the country,'' Clinton told reporters.

Jubilant supporters credited Houston's black voters, 95 percent of whom voted against the repeal, according to a poll done by University of Houston political science professor Richard Murray. He said that was a powerful difference from the vote in California, where 27 percent of blacks who cast ballots voted to end affirmative action.

Opponents of the Houston program, which aims to distribute 20 percent of city contracts to woman and minorities, are still sputtering over the intervention of the City Council. The measure's original wording mirrored the language of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and proposed asking voters whether to dismantle programs that awarded jobs ``on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.''

The council reworded the question to a straight city charter amendment asking, simply, if voters wanted ``to end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities'' in employment and contracting.

``That language was crafted by the mayor and the City Council and it didn't represent the real meaning and intent of our initiative,'' said Ed Blum, the conservative activist who put the repeal measure on the ballot.

Polls before the election showed affirmative action would have gone down if the question had been worded like the Civil Rights Act, as was California's Proposition 209.

``I said my God, had California had a different wording, in the same mold as Houston's, it would have been closer or easily gone down,'' said Mark Di Camillo, director of The Field Poll in San Francisco.