WASHINGTON — As dispirited Democrats take stock of across-the-board electoral losses and begin an inevitable bout of soul-searching and recriminations, they might take comfort in reflecting on the position of Republicans in 1976.
President Gerald Ford had just lost the White House to Jimmy Carter, and with memories of Watergate still fresh, many Republican officials worried that their party faced permanent marginalization. Some even suggested changing the party's name, believing "Republican" had become a political albatross.
"People were writing the obituary for the Republican Party," says Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at Hamilton College and author of "The Losing Parties."
Four years later, with President Carter plagued by long gas lines and the Iran hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan swept into office and launched a new period of GOP dominance.
The point isn't that Democrats have nothing to worry about. This week's defeats - spanning the White House, seats in both houses of Congress, and state legislatures - came despite the party's best-funded and best-organized effort in history. Although the country remains divided, Republicans have clearly expanded their electoral majority, with Democrats facing a growing challenge among certain regions and demographic groups.
But while the losses hold sharp implications for the future direction of the Democratic Party - and will probably shape which candidate it chooses for its next nominee - history shows that often a party's chance of recapturing the White House and rebounding in Congress is dictated less by what it does than by events and how the party in power handles them.
"Democrats clearly need to reassess what they're about and what they're doing," says Mr. Klinkner. "But what it's really going to come down to is what kind of job Bush does over the next four years," he says. "And in that sense, the Democrats are going to have to be reactive."
Certainly, the election results point to a number of serious problems for Democrats. President Bush made small but potentially significant inroads into the Democratic base, gaining a higher percentage of Hispanic votes than in 2000, and reducing the gender gap by winning over more women. He made gains among Catholic and Jewish voters, and even performed better in urban areas, the Democrats' stronghold.
Regionally, the Democrats' strength now seems almost entirely confined to the coasts and pockets of the Midwest. The party is currently without a national leader, having lost its Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle. Democrats were also defeated in every Senate race in the South, suggesting that the party faces growing challenges in trying to compete in that part of the country.
This year, Sen. John Kerry essentially ceded the entire South, aside from a brief flirtation with North Carolina when he put Sen. John Edwards on the ticket, and a last-minute visit by former President Bill Clinton to Arkansas. The Kerry campaign saw more promising territory for picking up electoral votes in the Southwest - states such as New Mexico and Colorado, both of which Kerry wound up losing narrowly. Some Democrats argue this region still represents a better fit for the party as it seeks to expand its base of support. But others say Democrats can't expect to win the White House if they can't compete in the South.
"It's very hard for a Democrat to win when you write off the South completely," says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.
If Kerry had managed to carry Ohio, Professor Abramowitz notes, he could have pulled it off. But the strategy left little room for error. And Kerry may have come up short in Ohio, despite the state's economic woes, for the same reason he lost across the South - an inability to connect with culturally conservative voters on values.
Polls showed many voters considered "moral issues" a top concern, equal to terrorism or the economy, and 8 out of 10 of those voters chose Bush. Kerry tried to downplay issues such as abortion and gay marriage in the campaign, but with initiatives banning gay marriage passing in 11 states, the issue may well have hurt him.
At the same time, some observers suggest that Kerry's positions on those issues may have mattered less than the fact that he simply seemed culturally alien to many rural and lower-income voters - as does the Democratic Party as a whole.
Significantly, one of the few demographics where Democrats seemed to expand their hold was among highly educated voters, even as Republicans gained ground among the less-educated.
"In the Southern states, there's a kind of antielitism which you would think, economically, would make these people pro-Democrat, but it's a cultural antielitism," says Andy Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State University. "Kerry personified the type of person that this philosophy does not like - an aristocratic, northeastern intellectual."
But while this may leave Democrats searching for a Southern or working-class standard-bearer for 2008 - possibly giving a boost to Senator Edwards, or raising questions about Sen. Hillary Clinton's chances, should she decide to run - many experts say the Democratic Party's failures in this election actually had far less to do with their image than with mechanics. Despite the biggest Democratic turnout effort in history, the party still came up short on the ground.
Some observers suggest that the Democrats may have been at a disadvantage by having much of their turnout operation manned by third-party groups, rather than one centralized effort coordinated through the party. Many of those groups also relied more on out-of-state workers, who may have had a harder time connecting with local residents.
• Amanda Paulson and Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report.