The Dying Democrats

November 24, 2002

by Bruce Walker

The Democrat Party is much sicker than the doctors are saying. Pundits focus on the conspicuous and narrow margins of Republican strength - 51 out of 100 senators, 229 out of 425 congressmen, and 26 out of 50 state governors - and conclude that America is still evenly divided. The top and the bottom of the American political system do not look evenly divided at all.

President Bush transcends mere popularity; he has almost redefined presidential popularity. Since President Bush took office, a dozen major polling organizations have measured his job approval rating on more than 300 occasions. Only twice has this job approval dipped below fifty percent.  

The first time was immediately after he had been sworn into office, when one Fox poll showed less than half of the American people approving of a job performance which had not even actually begun.   The second time, when Jeffords abandoned the Republicans and the mainstream media described this as a Bush Waterloo, one single Zogby poll showed his job approval dip below fifty percent.

Not only do Americans believe that the President is doing an excellent job, but they also believe that he has built a solid team of good helpers: Dick Cheney, Laura Bush, Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Tom Ridge, and George H. Bush are all viewed well by the public.   

Even more telling, Americans like George W. Bush, the man. Major polling organizations have asked the people of this nation how they really feel about Mr. Bush more than 250 times since May 1998.   The answer is always the same: we like him. This should not surprise anyone. He projects friendliness, compassion and plain honesty. Leftist snipping at his every misstated word or old, imaginary corporate scandal actually helps President Bush: “Is this the worst stuff his enemies can find?” we ask ourselves. Apparently so.

The branches at the top of the political tree are strong, fresh and growing, but a very popular Republican president does not doom the Democrat Party. More serious for them is the slow disintegration of Democrat power in state legislatures. Twenty or thirty years ago, “Republican state legislative strength” was an oxymoron. While Republicans won national elections and even controlled the Senate for six years under Reagan, Democrats totally dominated state legislatures.

The Republican landslide of 1994 swept in many Republican state legislators, but this strength remained static over the next three general elections. Republicans entering the November 2002 elections were in much better shape than twenty years earlier, but what happened on November 5, 2002 was a real shocker.

State legislative races are a symbol of general partisan identification and support by the average voter.   When most Americans considered themselves to be Democrats, the number of state legislators who were Democrats and the number of state legislative chambers controlled by Democrats was overwhelming.  

On November 5, 2002 Republicans gained seats in 52 state legislative chambers and gained control in a clear majority of state legislative chambers.   Republican state legislators outnumbered Democrat state legislators for the first time in half a century. This sweep was national: it stretched from Hawaii to Maine and from Washington to Florida. Democrats gained seats in only 17 state legislative chambers, and these were minor gains in a few scattered states.

Why this hidden landslide? Local issues are supposed to trump national trends in state legislative politics, but for the first time in a generation the mood of the nation filtered down to this lowest level of federal and state political power. The American people have identified Republicans as their party, the party of America’s future, and the party of hope.

The worst for the Democrats is yet to come. About half of those states in which Democrats still control state legislature are in very conservative states like Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi and much of the remaining Democrat state legislative strength is in other conservative states like North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.  

Lurching to the left at the national level will make these conservative Democrats feel even less welcome in the Democrat Party. Republicans in these states are edging closer to a majority, and when the shift of a few Democrat state legislatures can swing control of a legislative chamber, then Democrats will desert. It has already happened in Kentucky, Georgia, and North Carolina.

Once Democrats lose control of a legislative chamber, the trickle of desertions will become a torrent (Virginia and Florida are excellent examples). The Democrat Party at the highest and lowest level of political power is dying. Gangrene has set in, and the prognosis for the patient is not good. Not good at all.