WASHINGTON -- No wonder that John Kerry, after conferring at his Boston mansion with Ted Kennedy in the wee hours Wednesday morning, did not immediately concede the election to George W. Bush before giving up nine hours later. Remote though his chance was of turning around the crucial outcome in Ohio, it seemed to provide a frail final chance of averting total disaster for the Democratic Party.
The devastation of Tuesday's returns cannot be minimized. The transformation of the "Solid South" from Democrat to Republican was completed. Not only were all 11 states of the old Confederacy carried by President Bush, but the pickup of all five Senate seats left vacant by retiring Democrats means 18 of the region's 22 senators are Republican. Domination of Congress by the GOP now enters its second decade with Democrats largely restricted to enclaves on both coasts and some Midwestern industrial areas.
Democrats confront a grim future. Bush's 3.5-million-vote edge in the popular vote reflects a party out of touch with the country on social issues, the role of government and the war against terrorism. Democrats face the bitter reality of minority party status and what to do about it.
Facing reality is difficult because of unjustified confidence among high-level Democrats. All year long I was told by them that Kerry would win comfortably. They dismissed Republican inroads on normal Democratic voters by the same-sex marriage issue. They laughed off warnings from defecting Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia that the party had lost rural America.
This venture into unreality was buttressed by supposedly confidential exit polls that leaked to both presidential campaigns late Tuesday afternoon. They showed Kerry riding a landslide, reversing Bush's 2000 wins in Ohio and Florida -- in Ohio by a big margin. One of Kerry's top political operatives thought the time was appropriate to deliver to me an exposition of what Bush did wrong to lose the presidency.
Well-placed Republicans were not immune from exit poll mania. Based almost entirely on these flawed studies, one of Ohio's leading Republicans gave up when the third and final series of exit polls was leaked around 7 p.m. The gloom was thick, even among professionally cheerful staffers at the Republican National Committee.
Karl Rove, designer and executor of the Bush campaign, moved to avert the panic. He dispatched e-mails noting that the early exit polls in 2000 and 2002 had incorrectly forecast Democratic landslides. This year's polls, he said, were similarly flawed with massive oversampling of women.