As Republicans begin a triumphal round of pre-inaugural parties, the Democrats are still suffering through an identity crisis, struggling to find a new national leader who can cure the blues.

Whoever wins that thankless task — as well as the party strategists who still don’t seem to have a clue — would be well-advised to read and heed an analysis by the Los Angeles Times of how the Republicans made giant inroads in 2004 into a constituency that the Democrats thought they had locked up: Black religious leaders.

Reporters Peter Wallsten, Tom Hamburger and Nicholas Riccardi examine the Bush administration’s faith-based initiatives, which deliver federal dollars to church-run social services — and, as it turned out, also delivered black votes.

There’s no question that the faith initiative — combined with the administration’s support for banning gay marriage and promoting school vouchers — has already helped reshape Bush’s image among some traditionally Democratic African-Americans. And the change in black support on Nov. 2, though only a 2-percentage-point increase nationwide, helped secure Bush’s re-election victory. The gains were greater in battleground states.

In the crucial state of Ohio, where the faith-based program was promoted last fall at rallies and ministerial meetings, a rise in black support for Bush created the cushion he needed to win the presidential race without a legal challenge in that state.

Success, as it tends to do, has encouraged the GOP, writes the Times team:

Bush political strategist Matthew Dowd says that as early as 2006, Republican Senate and House candidates could win a quarter of the African-American vote. The long-term goals, he said, are even more ambitious.

Yet even a modest shift in the voting patterns of the minority group traditionally the most loyal to Democrats could transform the dynamics of American politics, giving Republicans an edge for decades.

In the life cycle of the news media, November 2 seems like ancient history. All attention is now riveted on the president’s sweeping second-term domestic agenda, and the fights brewing over his plans for Social Security, tax cuts, the deficit and other priorities.

Yet, as Wallsten, Hamburger and Riccardi demonstrate commendably, the oft-times under-rated and unwanted assignment of revisiting an event and tying up the loose ends can produce an insightful and fascinating story.

Susan Q. Stranahan

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.