Nationwide voter turnout in this week's midterm election may have hit a 50-year low, with no consistent pattern from state to state, analysts say.

Going into the voting, independent projections based on registration figures indicated that the turnout may be worse than the 36.4 percent level reached in the last midterm election of 1986. That was, in turn, the poorest voter showing since the 1942 midterm election.Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, described Tuesday's turnout as a "cliffhanger" in the sense that with only a small segment of the vote still not counted as of Wednesday afternoon, the turnout was almost exactly at the 1986 level.

"If there are 3 million votes out there it will be lower than in 1986; if there are 4 million it will be about the same," said Gans.

Gans added that turnout for Democrats held fairly steady, while Republican turnout was down by only a slight margin.

However, Gans added that an analysis of the figures from across the country showed no pattern except that turnout appeared driven solely by the importance and closeness of the top race from state to state.

Of the 46 states that had statewide races on tap, Gans said turnout increased from the last midterm election in 23 states, while dropping in the other 23.

And in some of the places where the key races were viewed as critical, the turnout showed it, regardless of whether the contest was close.

For example, in the District of Columbia, Democrat Sharon Pratt Dixon was elected mayor with an astounding 86 percent of the vote. Turnout was a record 53 percent.

In that case, even though the outcome was not in doubt, the race was viewed as critical because it represented a changing of the guard from the troubled administration of Mayor Marion Barry, who was convicted of drug charges earlier this year and was not in the race.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina Senate race - a much closer affair won by conservative Republican incumbent Jesse Helms over liberal black Democrat Harvey Gantt - also generated large voter interest.

"In that race you probably had the highest midterm turnout since women were given the franchise (to vote)," said Gans.

Historically, turnout in midterm elections is much lower than in years when the presidency is at stake and the race for the White House sparks more interest in politics.