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Evolving Democratic Minority

By Sam Parry
November 19, 2002

Before the Nov. 5 elections, many Democrats predicted that the results would foreshadow the “emerging Democratic majority,” a political theory from a book with that title by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira. The theory holds that the Democrats’ “progressive centrism” is gaining the allegiance of professionals, working women, blacks, Asian-Americans and Hispanics with demographics transforming these core constituencies into a new Democratic majority by 2010.

That Democratic optimism seems misplaced after the electoral wipeout in the mid-term elections. Instead of giving a glimpse of this emerging Democratic majority, the elections suggest that the Democrats may be sliding toward years in the minority.

The Nov. 5 outcome also demonstrated the danger of mechanical political theories, which can create false confidence of inevitable success. Rather than addressing major reasons for the Republican victories – including the political imbalance created by the conservatives' well-financed national media infrastructure – some Democrats act as if success will fall into their laps from a tilt of demographics.

In winning on Nov. 5 – thus holding the House of Representatives for a fifth consecutive election and regaining the Senate – the Republicans proved they can mobilize electoral majorities, even against what appear to be their personal economic interests. The Republicans can flood the political system with both positive and negative messages to rally their conservative constituencies while dividing independents and depressing the Democratic base.

The Republicans have this power because they have invested billions of dollars in a sophisticated media apparatus that includes Fox News, talk radio, the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages, the Washington Times, dozens of magazines and Internet publications, and a large stable of conservative op-ed writers who dominate the opinion pages of major newspapers, including supposedly liberal ones like the Washington Post.

By comparison, liberals and Democrats have spent almost nothing on a media infrastructure, leaving them struggling to get out their political messages.

This media imbalance puts the Democrats in a nearly impossible bind when trying to fashion a winning national message that must mix progressive policies with a populist style. For Democrats to win nationally, their message must offer tangible solutions to social, economic, environmental and national security problems in language that inspires and unites divergent subgroups throughout the country.

Getting that message to the Democrats' diverse "core constituencies" requires more than a few sound bites in paid 30-second commercials. The Democrats also must protect the viability of their messengers who can expect harsh scrutiny from both the conservative media and mainstream journalists. [For a brief history of how this pattern evolved, see "Democrats' Dilemma" from the Consortiumnews.com Archive.]

While the Republicans have continued to refine their successful media strategies, the Democrats have done little more than close their eyes and hope the problem will solve itself.

An Electoral Debacle

The results speak for themselves. On Nov. 5, Democrats lost seats in both houses of Congress and failed to pick up a majority of the governors’ houses as they had been forecasting going into the elections.

Arguably, more devastating is not just what they lost, it is how they lost. Credible, articulate, attractive Democratic candidates were defeated across the country.

In Minnesota, following the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, his stand-in, former Vice President Walter Mondale, lost to a less experienced Republican challenger. Republicans also swept statewide races for governor, secretary of state, and auditor. The normally sober Associated Press called the Minnesota Republican victory a “romp.”

A big factor in the Democrats' Minnesota collapse was the media firestorm that followed a memorial celebration for Wellstone that Republicans complained turned into a political rally. Most of the memorial gave voice to the personal grief caused by the plane crash that killed Wellstone, his wife and his daughter. But some eulogies were unusually political as they called for continuation of the senator's commitment to social justice and a Democratic victory.

Given the way the national news media works these days, the consequences were predictable. Republican pundits pounced on the Democrats for an unseemly display of politics at a time of mourning. Some conservative commentators even exaggerated the facts of the memorial service.

The day after the service, for instance, CNN's Tucker Carlson said, "The political world is still reeling tonight from yesterday's nauseating display in Minnesota, where a memorial service for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone was hijacked by partisan zealots and turned into a political rally. Republican friends of Sen. Wellstone were booed and shouted down as they tried to speak."

Carlson's account may have succeeded in stirring the fury of the Republican base around the country, but the reality of the memorial was far less dramatic. No Republicans were shouted down as they tried to speak. From the crowd of 20,000 people, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott was greeted with "scattered boos ... as he entered the arena," wrote the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Lott smiled and waved." [For more on how conservatives distorted the Wellstone memorial, see the account in Bob Somerby's Daily Howler.]

For Democrats, the Minnesota election debacle wasn’t the worst of Election Night 2002, however.

In Georgia, a Republican won the governor’s race for the first time since 1872. Sen. Max Cleland, a triple amputee Vietnam War hero, lost after being labeled soft on national defense by an opponent who never wore a uniform. In the House races, Democrats lost in the 11th and 12th districts, which had been carved by the Democratic-controlled state legislature to favor Democratic candidates.

In Maryland, Republican Bob Erlich defeated the sitting Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to become the first Republican governor of Maryland since Spiro Agnew in the 1960s.

In Massachusetts, Republican Mitt Romney defeated state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien to become the fourth straight Republican governor in a state where Democrats hold a 3-to-1 voter registration advantage.

In Missouri, Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan, the wife of the 2000 Democratic Senate candidate Mel Carnahan who died in a plane crash weeks before the election, lost to a much younger candidate, Jim Talent. Talent won after claiming Carnahan was part of the Democratic Senate majority that was blocking George W. Bush’s agenda.

In New Hampshire, Republican John Sununu defeated a popular sitting governor, Jeanne Shaheen. The race, which had been moving toward Shaheen one week before the election, turned toward Sununu in large part because of the message that Sununu would stand with Bush.

In race after race, Democrats struggled to get their message out and Republicans successfully muted core Democratic issues, such as prescription-drug legislation and environmental protection, by offering weaker policy alternatives. On top of that, Republicans gained by riding Bush's coattails as he stumped for Republicans and questioned whether the Democratic-controlled Senate cared about the security of the American people.

The 2004 Contests

It's too early to project what the 2004 presidential race will look like, but the Senate races in two years give the Democrats little cause for cheer.

In 2004, 19 of the 34 Senate seats up for grabs will be Democratic seats. Of those, eight seats were won by Democratic candidates with less than 60 percent of the vote. Another three safe Democrats – Bob Graham of Florida, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, and Tom Daschle of South Dakota – are rumored to be considering retirement.

(Sen. Hollings of South Carolina and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington also have been mentioned as members considering retirement, but they were included in the list of eight races won in 1998 with less than 60 percent of the vote. Zell Miller, who was named to the Senate following the death of Republican Sen. Paul Coverdale, would be considered a safe seat if he chooses to remain in the Senate.)

By contrast, Republicans would have to defend only four seats which their incumbents won with less than 60 percent of the vote in 1998. Given that they are back in the majority, Republican members are less likely to consider retirement, though Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania will be 74 and will have served 24 years in the Senate by 2004. Also, the Alaska Senate seat now held by Frank Murkowski, who left the Senate to become governor this year, will be a competitive seat if the Democrats run popular out-going Gov. Tony Knowles.

At best, Democrats can hope to compete for four to six Senate seats now held by Republicans. Meanwhile, Democrats may have to defend eight to 12 competitive seats.

On top of that disadvantage, Democrats likely will face a national election against a president who enjoys approval ratings of between 60 and 70 percent. Republicans find themselves in a situation similar to a football team with a sizable halftime lead and a good running game.

Media & Message

In the wake of 2002 elections, many political pundits are blaming the Democrats for not having a national message and an effective national messenger. Clearly, the congressional leadership of Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle had even less success overcoming the Republican advantages in media and money than Bill Clinton and Al Gore did during the 1990s.

Clinton and Gore were often blamed for the Democratic failures to regain congressional majorities in 1996, 1998 and 2000. But without the much-maligned Clinton and Gore, the Democrats did even worse in 2002, suffering their worst electoral defeats since 1994.

Still, even with the perfect message and the most articulate messenger, Democrats would face many disadvantages. Republicans now control the White House bully pulpit and can dictate the pace of many policy issues.

Republicans also possess a big fundraising advantage. In the 2002 mid-term elections, the Republican Party raised nearly $511 million compared to the Democratic Party’s $327 million. Of those totals, the Republicans collected almost $290 million in so-called hard money, which is the only kind of campaign donation that will be permitted by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform now taking effect. For the 2002 election cycle, the Democrats raised only $127.5 million in hard money. [For more details, see www.opensecrets.org.]

Based on those totals, the Republican fundraising advantage over Democrats in the era of the soft-money ban is more than 2-to-1. Plus, that edge is almost certain to grow with Republican control of all congressional committees and the White House.

On top of the campaign donations, the conservatives also have a huge media advantage. While the myth of the “liberal media” is kept alive in some quarters of American society – ironically because of repetition from the multitude of conservative commentators – the reality is that the Democrats are increasingly the odd politicians out with both the corporate mainstream media and the right-wing media.

Without addressing this media weakness, the Democrats may find that it doesn't matter whom they nominate in 2004 or what the message is. The media concentration again will be on the "character flaws" of the Democratic presidential candidate, while both mainstream and conservative journalists will minimize or ignore similar or worse problems on the Republican ticket. [For more details on how this worked in 2000, see Consortiumnews.com's "Protecting Bush-Cheney."]

The real choice for Democrats and their supporters is whether to undertake the hard work of building a media infrastructure that can compete with what the Republicans now have on the right – or to face a future in which the Republicans keep winning elections even though a majority of Americans may disagree with GOP policies.

If the Democrats are to bounce back – and restore some balance to the American political system – they will have to recognize that the road ahead is not paved with demographic magic.

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