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Democrats’ Losses Go Far Beyond One Defeat

Times Staff Writer

In the struggle for political power, Democrats now face a stark threat: Under George W. Bush, Republicans are consolidating their control over the culturally conservative regions of the country.

The 2004 elections underscored that the nation’s so-called red territories -- areas that support the president -- are becoming redder. And that threatens to leave Democrats at a long-term disadvantage in future races for the White House and battles for Congress.

Although Bush in Tuesday’s vote made some inroads among swing groups such as Latinos and married women, exit polls and voting results in key counties across the nation suggested he won his second term mostly by increasing the GOP strength in places where the party was already strong -- especially rural, small-town and fast-growing exurban communities.

Bush successfully defended 29 of the 30 states he won in 2000 -- and increased his margin of victory in 19 of those 29. Exit polls showed he dominated among the same groups central to his much narrower win in 2000 -- including regular churchgoers, married families and gun owners. And both the exit polls and voting results make clear that he inspired a huge surge of Republican turnout -- just as he did in the 2002 midterm elections.

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Just as important, his strength helped carry the GOP to substantial gains in congressional races across the red states. All six of the Democratic House seats that Republicans won Tuesday came in red states. (Four of them came in Bush’s home state of Texas, where a new redistricting map benefited the GOP.)

Even more dramatically, Republicans captured six Democratic Senate seats in states that Bush carried twice, while losing only one red state seat, for a net pickup of five in those states. With those gains, Republicans now hold 44 of the 58 Senate seats in the 29 states Bush has carried twice, bringing the party to the edge of a majority even before contesting seats in the blue states that voted for Al Gore and John F. Kerry.

Adding to the concern for Democrats is that the GOP made all these gains even while Kerry reached many of the targets his campaign set. The results suggest this wasn’t an election Kerry lost so much as one that Bush won.

Kerry inspired millions of new voters and established a clear advantage among young people, according to exit polls by the Los Angeles Times and Edison/Mitofsky for the National Election Pool. His campaign engineered huge turnouts among minority voters in such key cities as Cleveland and Philadelphia. And he held almost all of the upscale, socially moderate suburban counties in the Northeast and Midwest that shifted from the GOP to the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

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Yet in the key states -- especially Ohio -- all of that was overwhelmed by Bush’s ability to expand his vote among culturally conservative constituencies, especially rural and exurban voters.

Compounding the problem was Kerry’s inability to compete for any Southern state except Florida: That left him with few options for reaching 270 electoral votes, especially after his bid to open a new front in Western states such as Arizona, Nevada and Colorado fell short.

“Democrats face this terrible arithmetic in the Electoral College where if they don’t carry any of the 11 Southern states [of the Old Confederacy] they need to win 70% of everything else,” says Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University.

The math is just as daunting in the battle for Congress. Republicans will now control 18 of the 22 Senate seats in the states of the Old Confederacy, plus all four in Oklahoma and Kentucky. In the past two election cycles, the two parties have competed for nine open Senate seats in the South; with their sweep of five Democratic-held open seats Tuesday, Republicans have now captured all nine.

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“The only reason the Democrats dominated [Congress] for as many decades as they did is their advantage came from the South,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who specializes in Southern races. “When the South essentially left the Democratic coalition, that’s when we had the national shift [in Congress] to the Republicans.”

To many Democratic analysts, the clear message of these results is that even with its growing strength among upscale social moderates, the party will find it virtually impossible to reach a presidential or congressional majority without regaining at least some ground with socially conservative voters.

“We’ve got to close the cultural gap,” said Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, a leading centrist party group.

And even as Bush solidified his hold on culturally conservative voters, more social moderates appeared to drift away from him, especially along the two coasts.

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According to both the Times and the National Election Pool exit polls, Bush ran only about even or slightly behind with independent voters -- making him the first winner since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to lose with that critical swing group. Bush also fell short among voters who called themselves moderates and slipped a step among voters with college degrees, the exit polls found.

To some extent, Bush may be a prisoner of his own success: It won’t be easy for him to expand his party’s appeal with those sorts of swing voters while meeting the demands of the conservative coalition that powered his victory on issues such as potential appointments to the Supreme Court.

“Their coalition is very stable but it’s very narrow,” said John C. Green, a University of Akron political scientist who specializes in the relationship between religion and politics. “It will be interesting to see if any Republican besides Bush can succeed without finding ways to expand it. There’s not much margin of error in this coalition.”

Yet Bush’s unshakeable hold on his own voters allowed him to challenge for far more Democratic-leaning terrain than Kerry could contest on the Republican side. By the campaign’s final days, Kerry was seriously bidding for only three states that Bush carried last time -- Florida, Ohio and New Hampshire.

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Bush, meanwhile, seriously contested twice that many states won by Gore in 2000.

Although Bush ultimately fell short in at least 18 of the 20 states Gore won in 2000, he reduced the Democratic margin in 13 of them. And although Bush continued to run poorly among socially liberal constituencies such as single women or voters who rarely attend church, the Times exit poll found that he significantly improved his performance among married white women (especially those without a college education) and Latinos.

As in the 2002 midterm elections, Bush demonstrated that he could inspire a remarkable Republican turnout. Both the Times and NEP exit polls showed that Republicans constituted about as large a share of the voters Tuesday as Democrats.

That erased a 4-percentage-point Democratic lead in 2000 -- and fulfilled the goal set before the election by Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign’s chief strategist. These patterns come into sharp relief looking at Ohio, the state that ultimately decided the presidency more than any other.

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Kerry did almost everything he could have hoped in the state. He accumulated a margin of nearly 218,000 votes in Cuyahoga County (including Cleveland), an advantage nearly one-third larger than Gore managed in 2000.

Kerry even carried all three of the classic suburban swing counties that analysts watch closely in the state: Stark (Canton); Montgomery (Dayton) and Franklin (Columbus).

Yet Bush still overcame Kerry with the political equivalent of a death by a thousand cuts. Bush crushed Kerry and expanded his margins from 2000 in the rural and exurban counties that stretched across the state’s southern boundary and up its western edge to the Michigan border. Those results point to an ominous possibility for Democrats: that Dowd is right when he argues that white rural and blue-collar Midwestern voters are now committing to the GOP.Kerry’s losssuggests that the Democrats may not be able to recapture the White House until they find a nominee who can reverse that current in both regions.

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Times staff writer Richard Rainey and Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus contributed.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Times national exit poll results

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Data from the Los Angeles Times exit poll show how various groups of voters in the nation cast their ballots in the election. The two columns of percentages for Bush and Kerry are read horizontally. For example, of all the men who voted for president, 53% voted for Bush and 46% for Kerry.

Presidential choice

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Bush/Cheney 51% 100% -- Kerry/Edwards 48 -- 100% Other 1 -- --

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Gender

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Men 49% 53% 46 Women 51 49% 50

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Gender and marital status

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*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Married men 31% 59% 40 Single men 16 40% 58 Married women 30 57% 42 Single women 19 35% 64

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Age

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry 18-29 20% 43% 55 30-44 32 52% 47 45-64 36 54% 45 65 or older 12 55% 45

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Race/ethnicity

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry White 79% 57% 42 Black 10 14% 86 Latino 5 45% 54 Asian 3 34% 64

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Education

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Less than college 48% 54% 45 College degree or more 52 49% 50

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Income of voter

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*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Less than $20,000 10% 46% 51 $20,000 to $39,999 20 47% 52 $40,000 to $59,999 20 51% 48 $60,000 to $74,999 15 53% 46 $75,000 or more 35 54% 45

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Political ideology

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Liberal 32% 19% 79 Moderate 29 45% 54 Conservative 39 82% 18

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Party affiliation

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Democrat 40% 12% 88 Independent 19 48% 49 Republican 39 94% 6

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Party ideology

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Liberal Democrats 22% 5% 95 Other Democrats 18 19% 81 Other Independents 13 36% 60 Conservative Independents 6 77% 22 Other Republicans 13 89% 11 Conservative Republicans 27 96% 4

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When decided presidential vote

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*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Today/yesterday 8% 45% 52 Over the weekend 2 47% 46 Before the weekend 43 37% 62 Always knew 47 65% 34

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Military affiliation

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Household with a veteran and/or family active in military 46% 54% 45 Not in military, nor a veteran 50 48% 51

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Religion

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Protestant 51% 61% 38 Catholic 25 55% 44 Jewish 4 26% 74

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Attendance at religious services

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Weekly or more 42% 65% 34 Less than that 58 42% 57

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Gun ownership

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*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Own guns 36% 65% 34 Don’t own any 64 43% 56

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Voting status

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry First-time voter 11% 42% 57 Voted before 89 53% 46

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Locality

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry City 36% 43% 56 Suburb 32 52% 47 Small town 20 58% 41 Rural 12 62% 37

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Region

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry East 24% 42% 57 Midwest 24 54% 45 South 32 57% 42 West 20 49% 50

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Union household

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*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Union households 27% 43% 56 Non-union households 73 54% 45

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Sexuality

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Heterosexual 96% 53% 46 Gay/lesbian/ bisexual 4 17% 81

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Do you think the country is on the right or wrong track?

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Right track 51% 89% 11 Wrong track 49 11% 87

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Do you think the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, or not?

*--* % of all voters Bush Kerry Worth it 50% 88% 12 Not worth it 50 14% 84

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Note: numbers may not add up to 100% where some answer categories are not shown.

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How the poll was conducted: The Los Angeles Times Poll interviewed 5,154 voters who cast ballots in the general election Tuesday as they exited 136 polling places across the nation, including 3,357 California voters as they exited 50 polling places across the state. Precincts were chosen based on the pattern of turnout in past primary elections. The survey was a self-administered, confidential questionnaire, in English and in Spanish. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for all voters, including California voters. For some subgroups, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Fieldwork provided by Schlesinger Associates of Edison, N.J. and Davis Research of Calabasas.

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Source: Times Poll


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