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The Incredible Shrinking Dems

From the January 1, 2005 Wall Street Journal: It was an annus horribilis for America's minority party.

11:00 PM, Jan 6, 2005 • By FRED BARNES
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On foreign policy, Democrats traditionally were idealistic internationalists in favor of an assertive U.S. presence in the world ready to oppose various tyrannies. They've abdicated that role to Republicans. The chief foreign-policy idealist today is Bush, who champions a crusade for democracy in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East and elsewhere. Democrats flirt with isolationism.

One of the most talked about political concepts of the early 21st century was "the emerging Democratic majority." It was supposed to begin emerging in 2002 and 2004, but clearly it didn't. Adherents of the Democratic idea blame the 9/11 terrorist attack for upsetting the Democratic trend temporarily. The truth, of course, is there wasn't a Democratic trend in the first place. The concept assumed that Democratic vote levels in the late 1990s among women, Latinos, African Americans and young, college-educated urbanites was a floor. And since these groups were growing at a fast pace, the Democratic vote would soar and Democrats would emerge as the dominant party again, as they were from the '30s to the '90s.

The floor turned out to be a ceiling. It's Republicans who have gained among these groups (with the possible exception of young metropolitan sophisticates). Take women. Since 1996, the gender gap--the difference between the male vote for Republicans and the female vote for Democrats--has shrunk. President Clinton won women by 16 percentage points in 1996. Al Gore won by 11 points in 2000. But John Kerry's edge in 2004 was a mere three points. And among white women without a college education, a poll by Democracy Corps found Kerry trailingBush by 23 points.

Anna Greenberg, one of the smartest of the younger Democratic consultants, explains the Democratic trouble with women this way: "Despite the economic interests, socially conservative women, white, blue-collar women, have moved increasingly into the Republican camp, primarily around social and cultural issues that include perceived moral decline, abortion and reproductive health, challenges to women's traditional roles in society and family, and gay rights. . . . These voters swung to Bush as he tapped into their social conservatism, their support for his approach to the war on terrorism, and their admiration of his faith."

With Latinos, the story is similar. Traditional values, respect for religious faith, and support for entrepreneurship are tugging them into the Republican Party. The Republican share of the Latino vote grew from 21% in 1996 to 35% in 2000 and to 44% in 2004. The 44% figure in the exit poll is disputed by some Democrats, but if the jump was only to 40%, that's still a significant gain and represents an even more significant trend.

Republican gains among Jews (19% in 2000 to 25% in 2004) and blacks (9% to 13%) were smaller. And Democrats point to the youth vote as predicative of a bright Democratic future. Kerry prevailed among voters aged 18-29 by nine percentage points. But there's no evidence that younger voters are the wave of the future in presidential contests. Clinton won them by 19 points in his 1996 re-election. Democrats went on to lose the next two presidential elections.

Some Democratic strategists disparage the notion that increased Republican turnout in the rapidly growing exurban and rural areas matters in national races. Not enough voters live there, they say. This amounts to self-justification. Democrats largely ignored these areas in their massive voter registration drive in 2004 and regarded Republican registration claims as imaginary. But without a spike in turnout outside major urban areas, Bush would have lost Ohio and New Mexico and perhaps Iowa, thus Kerry would be president-elect. After the election, Ronald Brownstein and Richard Rainey of the Los Angeles Times found that Bush captured 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the country, most of them on the fringe of major metropolitan areas.

The Republican surge in recent years should not have been a shock. The 200-plus years of American political history have seen a series of realignments that shift power from one party to another (1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, now). The chief theorist of realignment, political scientist Walter Dean Burnham, says they occur when the dominant party is unable to cope with new demands from frustrated voters. That prompts a breakthrough election, the latest in 1994. If the new political arrangement "turns out to be permanent," it's a realignment that's likely to endure for decades. The 2004 election "consolidated" the realignment, Burnham says.