Page last updated at 12:30 GMT, Friday, 2 February 2007

Profile: The Democratic Party

The Democratic Party first emerged in the 1790s under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, organised around the protection of agricultural interests and opposed to concentration of power in the hands of the federal government.

John F Kennedy
Democrat JFK was America's youngest ever elected president
At the centre of the party stood a belief in "state's rights", meaning that the federal government should intervene as little as possible, leaving almost all responsibility to individual state governments.

The issue became increasingly bound up with slavery dividing the party between northern and southern Democrats.

Eventually, with the election in 1860 of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president, the southern Democrats seceded from the Union, plunging the country into civil war.

In the years after the war, charges of disloyalty dogged the party helping to keep them out of the White House until 1884.

As the minority party - reliant on southern support and the votes of ethnic minorities in the North - the Democrats began to identify with the more marginalised groups such as poor farmers in the west and those left behind by the growth of big business in the late 19th Century.

Democrats divided

When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property
Thomas Jefferson
Democrat president 1801-9
Long periods out of power had a damaging effect on the party, leaving it weak and divided, principally between conservative southerners and urban progressives in the north.

In a bruising party convention in 1924, it took 103 separate ballots to decide upon a candidate for the presidency.

It took the Great Depression and the Republican failure to meet the challenges that it threw up to transform the political landscape and pave the way for Franklin Roosevelt's powerful new Democratic coalition.

In what became known as "the New Deal" Roosevelt moved the party onto an agenda of vigorous intervention in social and economic issues, expanding the Democratic vote to encompass urban workers, the unions, intellectuals, small farmers, minorities and poor southern whites.

Roosevelt, sitting between Churchill and Stalin
Roosevelt only belatedly took the US into WWII
During this period roughly twice as many voters identified themselves as Democrats compared to Republican, leading to a period of Democratic dominance in the White House and Congress.

Between 1932 and 1968 the Democrats held the presidency for 28 out of 36 years, interrupted only by Eisenhower's two terms (1952-1960). They also controlled the House of Representatives until 1994 and the Senate for the vast majority of that period.

The New Deal coalition began to split in the 1960s, when Presidents Kennedy and Johnson pursued a civil rights agenda, opening the way for Nixon and the Republicans to pursue their "Southern Strategy" of appealing to Southern whites.

Growing opposition to the war in Vietnam and the counter-culture movement allied with the rising union power in turn caused further divisions in the Democratic party.

Losing ground

The Sixties onwards saw the Democrats become increasingly out of touch with their traditional, core constituency: white working- and middle-class voters, the key "swing group" in American politics.

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 D 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)
Instead the party became associated with elite opinion and special interests or "identity politics" rather than the interests of working people.

This widening gulf opened the field to the populist conservatism of the Reagan presidency, uniting working and middle class America and heightening the extent to which the Democratic party became identified with minority interests, big government, welfare, racial quotas and weak foreign policy.

Between 1968 and 1992, the Democrats only held the White House for four years. It is significant that the people who broke that trend in 1976 and 1992 were both Southern governors - Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Carter came in on the back of Watergate with a powerful centrist message of honesty which scored highly in the wake of the Nixon Watergate scandal.

But he fared poorly in office, consigning the Democrats to 12 more years in the wilderness until the arrival of Bill Clinton in 1993.

The Clinton years

President Clinton's most significant achievement was in repositioning the Democrats as centrists committed to sound economic management. He presided over the longest economic expansion in US history and in 1996 became the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win re-election.

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton pushed international peace initiatives
But Bill Clinton's ability to enact reform - most notably of healthcare - was hampered in 1994 by a Republican landslide in mid-term elections, ending four decades of Democratic control in Congress. He faced an opposition-controlled Congress for the last six years of his presidency.

With his hands tied domestically, he was free to push an international peace agenda, notably in the Middle East, and more successfully in Northern Ireland.

However President Clinton's impeachment - over a denial under oath that he had had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky - overshadowed his second term and began a highly partisan era in American politics. Although acquitted by the Senate, he was only the second president to be impeached by the House.

Democrats demoralised

Vice-President Al Gore tried to exploit Bill Clinton's strong economic legacy while distancing himself from the president's personal shortcomings in his campaign to retain the White House for the Democrats in 2000. Mr Gore adopted a populist stance, appealing to the party's grassroots neglected by President Clinton, but his strategy backfired.

The manner of Al Gore's defeat at the hands of Republican challenger George W Bush was deeply demoralising for the Democrats. Although he won the nationwide popular vote, he lost Florida, the deciding state in the Electoral College, by a margin tiny enough to trigger a recount.

Any hopes of a Democrat revival in 2001, when a Republican defection handed them control of the Senate, were dashed by the terrorist attacks of 11 September, which in effect suspended normal partisan politics for over a year.

Partisan political sniping was seen as unpatriotic and few Democrats dared oppose legislation authorising military action and introducing tough domestic anti-terrorist provisions.

George W Bush's extraordinary popularity following his declaration of a "war on terrorism" inoculated him from the political fallout from scandals the Democrats would normally have expected to exploit, specifically the collapse of energy firm Enron in January 2002.

The president's popularity translated into a Republican victory in the 2002 mid-term elections. While most midterms punish the incumbent, the results saw an unexpectedly large swing towards the Republicans, who increased their majority in the House and regained control of the Senate after portraying the Democrats as soft on national security.

These gains appeared to reinforce long-term political trends favouring Republicans and left the Democrats excluded from both the government and Congressional leadership for the first time since 1954.

They were also internally divided on the issue of Iraq, with some opposing military action, and many others supporting the president's war.

The party's situation did not improve in the 2004 elections. Despite fielding John Kerry - a decorated Vietnam veteran - as their presidential candidate, they failed to persuade voters that they could be trusted on national security. Kerry narrowly lost the election, and the Democrats failed to regain either chamber of Congress.

Tide turns

By 2006, however, the constant stream of bad news coming from Iraq had finally eroded the Republicans' reputation for competence on defence. Senior Democrats began calling for troops to be withdrawn from Iraq.

On the back of a wave of anti-war feeling and popular anger at a number of Republican corruption scandals, the Democrats scored a dramatic victory in the mid-term elections, winning back control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994.

In 2008 the Democrats will be hoping to take advantage of the continuing unpopularity of the war, retain their advantage in Congress and take control of the presidency as well.

Electoral College votes

Winning post 270
Obama - Democrat
McCain - Republican
Select from the list below to view state level results.

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