November 13, 2003,
There's been a lot of talk about recent studies showing a decline in the percentage of American voters who identify themselves as Democrats.
Last summer, pollster Mark Penn found that just 32 percent of voters called themselves Democrats, which led Penn to conclude that, at least on the party-ID issue, "the Democratic party is currently in its weakest position since the dawn of the New Deal."
Now a new study by the Pew Research Center pegs the Democratic number at 31 percent, versus 30 percent who call themselves Republicans.
That's very bad news if you're a Democrat but what does it actually mean?
Just who are those voters who have switched party affiliation? And perhaps more important, where are they?
As it turns out, many are right where Democrats don't want them to be in the swing states that could determine the winner of next year's presidential election.
In Minnesota, for example, Democrats used to enjoy a 31-26 advantage in party identification. Now, it's 31-28 in favor of Republicans. In 2000, Bush lost the state by about 58,000 votes out of 2.4 million cast.
Next time around, with more Republicans, he might do better.
In Michigan, Democrats used to enjoy a 33-26 advantage. Now it's 31-29 in favor of Republicans. In 2000, Bush lost the state by about 217,000 votes out of 4.2 million cast.
In Iowa, Democrats used to enjoy a 32-27 advantage. Now, it's 34-27 in favor of the Republicans. In 2000, Bush lost the state by about 4,000 votes out of 1.3 million cast.
In Wisconsin, Democrats used to enjoy a 33-29 advantage. Now, it's 30-29 in favor of the Republicans. In 2000, Bush lost by about 6,000 votes out of 2.6 million cast.
Those are the states that have turned over. In some other states that Bush lost narrowly, Democrats maintain their edge just less so.
For example, in New Mexico, Democrats used to enjoy a 40-30 advantage. Now, it's 39-35. In 2000, Bush lost by just 366 votes.
And in the most important swing state of all in 2000, Florida, Democrats used to enjoy a 38-33 advantage. Now, it's 37-36 in favor of Republicans. That means Bush might be able to build on his 537-vote landslide.
"Republican gains have come across the board, both geographically and demographically," the Pew report says. "There have been increases in Republican party affiliation in nearly every major voting bloc, except among African-Americans."
And even though Democrats still have a tiny 31-30 advantage nationwide, that may be of little use next year.
"Because Republicans traditionally turn out to vote in higher numbers than do Democrats, the current division in party affiliation among the public could provide the GOP with a slight electoral advantage," the Pew report says.
Much of the discussion about the study has emphasized its conclusion that the United States remains deeply divided politically.
Some commentators have suggested that the study says the country is even more deadlocked than it was in 2000. "The red states get redder, [and] the blue states get bluer," wrote the Washington Post's E. J. Dionne.
Yet that doesn't seem to be the case. According to Pew, red states have indeed gotten redder, but blue states have gotten redder, too. Even the bluest of the blues, such as California, are a bit less so than a few years ago.
Why is it happening? Republican National Committee chief Ed Gillespie has an obvious partisan stake in the situation but nevertheless offered a cogent analysis in a recent memo to party leaders.
"As the Democrat party gets smaller, it becomes more liberal, elitist, and angry," Gillespie wrote, "and as it becomes more liberal, elitist, and angry, it gets smaller."
Ask Democrats and they'll tell you the Pew numbers don't reveal much about anything. The Democrats point out, reasonably, that party affiliation will not matter if more and more people decide not to vote for Bush.
"The number we'll be watching is the number of people who vote for or against President Bush," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Tony Welch.
Welch pointed to a recent Marist College poll that found that 44 percent of those surveyed said they definitely plan to vote against Bush next year, while 38 percent said they definitely plan to vote for him.
"Unless you're a bean counter worried about registration, this is what matters," says Welch.
Well, yes. But the Marist poll also found Bush beating any Democrat matched against him.
And the trends in party affiliation in the swing states that went to Gore in 2000 suggest that it's going to be harder for a Democrat to win those states in 2004.
Count all those beans together and they could mean big trouble for the next Democratic nominee.
Byron York is also a columnist for The Hill, where this first appeared.