The Democratic Party traces its origin to the Democratic-Republican Party founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1793. The Democratic Party itself was formed from a faction of the Democratic-Republicans, led by Andrew Jackson. Following his defeat in the election of 1824 despite having a majority of the popular vote, Andrew Jackson set about building a political coalition strong enough to defeat John Quincy Adams in the election of 1828. The coalition that he built was the foundation of the subsequent Democratic party.
In the 1850s, following the disintegration of the Whig Party, the southern wing of the Democratic Party became increasingly associated with the continuation and expansion of slavery, in opposition of the newly formed Republican Party. Democrats in the northern states opposed this new trend, and at the 1860 nominating convention the party split and nominated two candidates (see U.S. presidential election, 1860). As a result, the Democrats went down in defeat - part of the chain of events leading up to the Civil War. After the war, the Democrats were a shattered party, but eventually gathered enough support to elect reform candidate Grover Cleveland to two terms in the presidency.
In 1896 the Democrats chose William Jennings Bryan over Cleveland as their candidate, who then lost to William McKinley. The Democrats did not regain the presidency until Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote and Woodrow Wilson won with a modest plurality in 1912. The Republicans again took the lead in 1920 by championing laissez-faire regulatory policies. The stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression set the stage for a more interventionist government and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) won a landslide election in 1932, campaigning on a platform of "relief, recovery, and reform".
FDR's New Deal programs focused on job-creation through public works projects as well as on social welfare programs such as Social Security. The political coalition of labor unions, minorities (most significantly, Catholics and Jews), liberals, and southern whites (the New Deal Coalition) allowed the Democrats to control the government for much of the next 30 years, until the issue of civil rights divided conservative southern whites from the rest of the party (see Dixiecrat). From the time of the founding of the Republican party, African-Americans gave strong support to the anti-slavery party. However, with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, and President Lyndon Johnson's support, blacks made an almost complete shift to the Democratic party. Another consequence of this was the start of the flight of southern whites to the Republican party.
The political pendulum swung away from the Democrats with the election of Republican president Ronald Reagan in 1980. The country seemed ready for political change after a decade of poor economic performance and the long Iranian hostage crisis in the last year of the Carter administration. Riding Reagan's coattails, the Republican Party successfully positioned itself as the party of national strength, gaining 34 seats in the House and gaining control of the Senate for the first time since 1955.
The Democratic Leadership Council organized by elected Democratic leaders has in recent years worked to position the Party towards a centrist position. It still retains a powerful base of left-of-center supporters however, as like the Republicans, the Democrats are generally a catch all party with widespread appeal to most opponents of the Republicans. This includes organized labor, educators, environmentalists, gays, pro-choicers, and other opponents of the social conservatism practiced by many Republicans.
In the 1990s the Democratic Party re-invigorated itself by providing a successful roadmap to economic growth. Led by Bill Clinton, the Democrats championed a balanced federal budget and job growth through a strong economy. Labor unions, which had been steadily losing membership since the 1960s, found they had also lost political clout inside the Democratic Party: Clinton enacted the NAFTA free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico over the strong objection of the unions.
In the 2000 Presidential election, some progressives, unhappy with the centrist shift of the party, bolted it to support the Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, which likely took votes away from Democratic presidential nominee Albert A. Gore, Jr in many traditionally liberal states. This "spoiler effect" was a factor some observers cite as the cause for his defeat, though others blame Gore for failing to ride Clinton's coattails to a resounding victory, and failing to even win his homestate. Furthermore, some point out that while Nader probably did influence the contested Florida election, Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan won more votes in several states than Bush lost by. It is also likely that even if Nader had not run many Green voters might not have come to the polls at all. Many Greens also critiscize the Democrats for calling them "spoilers," and simulataneously not supporting electoral reform such as Instant Runoff Voting.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Democrats were faced with a new political puzzle as the nation's focus changed to issues of national security and homeland security, with the Democrats positioning themselves against war in Iraq and advocating a less aggressive policy. By 2004, after losing ground in the 2002 mid-term elections, Democrats felt their prospects had begun to rebound with the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and mounting combat casualties in Iraq.
Prominent Democratic-Party figures
- Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
- Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
- James Knox Polk (1845-1849)
- Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
- James Buchanan (1857-1861)
- Grover Cleveland (1885-1889)
- Grover Cleveland (1893-1897)
- Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)
- Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)
- John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
- Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
- Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
- Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
- Andrew Jackson (Lost: 1824, Won: 1828, 1832)
- Martin Van Buren (Won: 1836, Lost: 1840)
- James Knox Polk (Won: 1844)
- Lewis Cass (Lost: 1848)
- Franklin Pierce (Won: 1852)
- James Buchanan (Won: 1856)
- Northern Democrats Stephen A. Douglas (Lost: 1860)
- Southern Democrats John C. Breckinridge (Lost: 1860)
- George B. McClellan (Lost: 1864)
- Horatio Seymour (Lost: 1868)
- No candidate. Endorsed Liberal Republican Horace Greeley (Lost: 1872)
- Samuel J. Tilden (Lost: 1876)
- Winfield S. Hancock (Lost: 1880)
- Grover Cleveland (Won: 1884, 1892, Lost: 1888)
- William Jennings Bryan (Lost: 1896, 1900, 1908)
- Alton B. Parker (Lost: 1904)
- Woodrow Wilson (Won: 1912, 1916)
- James M. Cox (Lost: 1920)
- John W. Davis (Lost: 1924)
- Alfred E. Smith (Lost: 1928)
- Franklin D. Roosevelt (Won: 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944)
- Harry S. Truman (Won: 1948)
- Adlai Stevenson (Lost: 1952, 1956)
- John F. Kennedy (Won: 1960)
- Lyndon Johnson (Won: 1964)
- Hubert H. Humphrey (Lost: 1968) (see also: 1968 Democratic National Convention)
- George McGovern (Lost: 1972)
- Jimmy Carter (Won: 1976, Lost: 1980)
- Walter F. Mondale (Lost: 1984)
- Michael S. Dukakis (Lost: 1988)
- Bill Clinton (Won: 1992, 1996)
- Al Gore (Lost: 2000)
Other currently notable Democrats
(Years of birth are indicated.)