The shift that propelled Republicans to victory in the recent congressional elections was not a major one - overall, voters chose the GOP by a margin of just four percent.
But in those four percentage points could lie the seeds of something much larger.
Postelection surveys indicate that the GOP expanded its support among white men and rural voters. More striking, the party also made inroads into traditionally Democratic constituencies such as women and union members, Catholics and Hispanics. The outcome is giving new credence to Karl Rove's vision - first shared during the 2000 campaign - of a new Republican dominance, such as that which took hold with William McKinley's presidency in 1896, and lasted for decades.
Of course, it's far too early to declare anything like an emerging Republican majority. Even GOP strategists admit that the party's gains weren't exactly overwhelming, and that it will take another election or two to establish any sort of larger trend.
Still, Mr. Rove is clearly feeling hopeful: "Something is going on out there," the White House political strategist was reported as saying in a talk last week at the University of Utah. "It's not just that Republicans picked up three seats in the Senate or six or seven or eight seats in the House. It's something else more fundamental."
On a smaller scale, Rove has overseen the creation of a GOP majority once before - in the state of Texas. When Mr. Bush won the Texas governorship in 1994, defeating Democrat Ann Richards, he won just 53 percent of the vote, and Republicans were the minority in the state legislature. Four years later, he was reelected in a landslide, and the GOP took over the state Senate and nearly took the House. The party's continuing dominance in the Lone Star state was evident this year, as Republicans won by wide margins in the Senate and governor's races.
Large-scale voter realignments, however, are far rarer. The last major one occurred during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, when he redefined the Democratic Party as the party of workers, city dwellers, and immigrants, creating a new Democratic majority. During Ronald Reagan's tenure, a smaller realignment took place, as conservative Democrats in the South realized their natural ideological home was more in the GOP - a shift that is still taking place, though it has mostly played itself out.
So far, analysts say there are few signs that any kind of realignment is taking place on President Bush's watch. While more people may have voted for Republicans in this year's elections, it doesn't mean they've permanently moved to the GOP camp. "You have to draw a distinction between voting and attachment," says Donald Green, a political scientist at Yale University. "You can root for one team, and you can vote for that team - but unless you think of yourself as a team member, what you do is kind of transitory."
Democrats are even blunter: "I don't think there's any voter realignment," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, at a recent Monitor breakfast. What happened in this year's elections was "a minor shift that's explainable by a whole range of things that are kind of one-time phenomena," he says. "It's hard to come away from that saying that's going to shape our future."
Significantly, Mr. Greenberg says, although a majority of voters cast ballots for congressional Republicans this year, only 48 percent said they would vote to reelect Mr. Bush in 2004 over a generic Democratic nominee. Still, Greenberg's own data reveal some demographic trends that are not good news for Democrats.
• Republicans maintained or increased their recent dominance among men, whites, married people, and rural voters - and won white men by 19 percentage points. Analysts from both parties agree that national security was a top concern this year; voters who cast their ballots for Republicans listed the war on terrorism and supporting President Bush as their top two reasons.
• The GOP also won the senior vote this year, indicating that the party's efforts to neutralize Democrats' attacks on issues such as Social Security and prescription drugs were largely successful. While Democrats won a majority of seniors in 2000, this year Republicans scored a 5-percent margin among voters over 60.
• Most notable, Republicans closed some of the gaps that have hampered them in past elections. Women, who have traditionally given Democrats a big margin, voted Democratic by only 2 percent this year.
Democrats' lead among union households, a healthy 22 points in 2000, shrank to 15 points this year - and just 6 points among white union members. And while Hispanics overall still gave Democrats a double-digit lead, Republicans made big inroads in certain states, such as Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush won about 60 percent of the Latino vote.
Republican strategists say that many of these gains are the result of specific efforts the party has made to broaden its support. "Republican campaigns worked really hard at targeting some of those groups," says GOP pollster Glen Bolger
The party tried to reach out to women, for example, focusing more on issues such as education - and the election "showed some dividends for that."
Still, whether Republicans can hold these gains beyond this year will depend in large part on how the Democrats respond, he says, and how effectively they work to counter this year's trends in the next campaign. "It's possibly the start of something bigger," he says. "Unless it's not."