The fight for the Democratic base

By Tim Grieve
Published February 11, 2005 11:20PM (EST)

As Howard Dean talks with his party today about how to start winning again, a lot of Democrats gathered at the DNC's Winter Meeting are still struggling to figure out why they lost so badly in 2004. One new study suggests that John Kerry was simply the least-liked Democratic candidate since George McGovern. But in caucus meetings in Washington today, Democrats are hearing other explanations.

Chief among them: Republicans are pushing their way into the Democratic base. "Why? First of all, because we let them," Howard Dean told the DNC's African-American Caucus a few minutes ago. But more important, Dean said, the Republicans understand that the Democrats' base -- particularly its minority base -- represents the future of a country growing more diverse. "If voting patterns continue the way they are, we're going to win," Dean said. "But if we continue to sit on our you-know-whats, we're going to lose."

African-Americans here say that the Democratic Party has taken them for granted for too long. Pollster Cornell Belcher says that many African-American voters -- particularly young ones -- are losing faith that their votes actually matter, and he's concerned that the Republicans' "diabolical" tactics on gay marriage have the potential to drive African-American voters away from the Democratic Party. But in a presentation to the African-American Caucus, Belcher suggested that the Democrats' fading support among white women may be an even bigger problem. George Bush's support among white women grew from 49 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2004, Belcher said, adding: "It's going to be very difficult for a Democrat to win nationally when white women are breaking six points for George Bush."

Over at the Women's Caucus meeting, pollster Celinda Lake offered a similar sentiment. "People say that we always lose white women, that we always lose married women. No we don't. Not when we win elections, we don't." Lake said that the Democrats won't start winning over white women again until they do a better job -- and you've heard this one before -- communicating their values. In 2004, female swing voters saw Republicans as the party of "family values" and Democrats as the party of "Hollywood values," Lake said. "People laugh at themselves, and they'll say, 'Yeah, I know I watch those movies and those TV shows,'" but they also worry about societal influences on their kids, Lake said.

There are bright spots for Democrats in the demographic breakdowns being discussed today. Lake displayed charts showing that Kerry won among voters between 18 and 29, a hopeful sign for future elections, and she said that single women continue to support Democratic candidates by substantial margins. Faced with the partisan split between married women and their single counterparts, Lake joked that Democrats might pick up votes if more married women became single. "We could advocate divorce as a national policy," she joked, "but that might have some limits as a values argument."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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