- The Washington Times - Monday, December 23, 2002

One of the huge ironies in the racial firestorm that swirled around Sen. Trent Lott is that it eclipsed the troubles Democrats are having with black voters.
The post-election debate has been all about the Mississippi Republican's now-abandoned battle to hold on to his leadership post and fears of newly resurgent black resentment toward the GOP instead of on growing black disenchantment with Democrats and early signs that the black Democratic voting bloc is beginning to break apart.
Liberal black leaders, whose power derives from a monolithic black voter base, were alarmed by polls this fall showing that younger blacks were increasingly registering as independents and that the number of black Republicans was growing, too.
Equally significant, post-election voter surveys by Democratic pollsters showed the black vote was lower overall. Many blacks say the Democratic Party has taken them for granted. Reports flowed into the Democratic National Committee's headquarters here about mounting black complaints that their issues were not being addressed. Urban leaders said the core of the party's base was dispirited and deflated.
"There was no message for them," says a party official. Some black voters showed their displeasure by staying home on Election Day in urban centers like St. Louis, Baltimore and New Orleans. Some as was evident in the Republican gubernatorial victory in heavily Democratic Maryland voted in modestly larger numbers for the GOP, or at least against the Democrats.
David Bositis' survey for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that focuses on black issues, sent a chilling message about black partisanship to Democratic leaders on Oct. 30: "There has been a noteworthy change in black partisan identification [away from the Democrats] since the Joint Center's 2000 National Opinion Poll," Mr. Bositis found.
"In 2002, 63 percent of African-Americans were self-identified Democrats (down from 74 percent in 2000), 24 percent were self-identified Independents (up from 20 percent in 2000), and 10 percent were self-identified Republicans (up from 4 percent in 2000)," he reported.
White House strategists and some party officials fear that much of this progress will be destroyed by Mr. Lott's incredible remark (or stupid joke) that the country would have been far better off if then-segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948.
There is no doubt that Mr. Lott's comment has undermined the GOP's slow but hopeful progress in the black community. But over the long term, when Washington and the punditry class have moved on to other issues that most concern blacks and all other Americans, the political breakup of the black vote is likely to resume.
There are those in the liberal community who want to fan the racial fires for their own political purposes, and Mr. Lott's blunder gave them the opening they craved. But it's a big mistake to conclude that the Lott debacle is somehow going to mitigate or reverse the Democrats' declining support in the larger electorate.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg did not pull any punches in a post-election memo sent to party leaders in which he and campaign strategist JamesCarville warned the Democrats about their political weaknesses. Among his findings:
"In the end, 39 percent of the actual voters self-identified as Republicans, 3 percent more than in 2000 and 1998. The Democratic portion fell to 35 percent (down from 39 percent in 2000 and 37 percent in 1998)."
"There was an even bigger increase in self-identified conservatives in the electorate, 41 percent, compared to approximately 30 percent two and four years ago. That reflects the increased conservatism of this post-Sept. 11 period and the conservative energy reflected in turnout on Election Day."
"This year, the Democrats proved somewhat weaker with women, winning by only 2 percent, compared to 8 points in 2000 (and 5 in 1998)."
Despite the party's Social Security fear campaign, "Democrats lost seniors by 5 points. That is considerably lower than in 2000 when Democrats fought the prescription drug battle and won by 4 points."
"While union households held up their percentage of the off-year electorate (21 percent), Democratic support was down by 5 points."
"Democrats remain weak among married voters, losing the women by 12 points and the men by 19. They lost men aged 50 years and under by 13 points. They lost rural areas by 24 points."
These and other anti-Democratic trends are not going to go away anytime soon, and some respected analysts think they may herald a long and continuing decline for the Democrats.
In a post-election analysis last month, The Washington Post's veteran political reporter, Tom Edsall, said the Democrats' troubles were leading to "defections among the ranks, to people simply turning their backs and changing their allegiances, driving the party into what could be an even more serious retreat."
This is the sea-change political reformation that is beginning to emerge in the American electorate. At some point, the Democrats will have to face up to it if they are to survive.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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