The Democratic party of the United States is one of the oldest surviving political organizations in the world. It was formally established as a national organization by the Democratic Republican national nominating convention in Baltimore, Md., in May 1832. The party rechristened itself Democratic at its third national convention, in May 1840. Together with the Republican party, the Democratic party continues to be one of the two major political parties of the nation.
In colonial politics, agrarian interests, later to become a principal source of support for the Democratic party, tended to organize and electioneer in opposition to the policies of royal, mercantile, banking, manufacturing, and shipping interests. Many of the colonies had so-called Country parties opposing the Court parties in the 18th century. During the period of the American Revolution and the Confederation, partisan collaborations took place mainly in urban electioneering societies such as the Boston Caucus Club; in and among colonial and state legislatures through committees of correspondence; and in the factionalism of the Continental Congress. In the latter body, those who pressed most strongly for complete separation from Britain were viewed as radicals. Under the Confederation, many of the same people resisted centralizing the political institutions of the new nation; they became Anti-Federalists who opposed ratification of the new Constitution of the United States in 1788–89.
Party alignments of national consequence began to form before the end of George Washington's first administration in 1793. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was the master politician of the Federalist party. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, in cooperation with his fellow Virginian, Representative James Madison, led what came to be the first loyal opposition in national affairs—the Democratic Republican party, also known as the Jeffersonians. Jefferson spoke on behalf of the interests of farmers, veterans, and urban immigrants and was in favor of minimum government, maximum liberty, alliance with France, and easy credit for debtors. In 1792 he and Madison allied with New York's Gov. George Clinton, creating the first political coalition between Northern and Southern politicians—a coalition that would later serve as a pillar of the Democratic party. Tammany Hall in New York City, under the leadership of Aaron Burr, threw in its resources to become part of the coalition. Tammany would later become the nation's most important urban political machine, recruiting workers and immigrants into the Democratic party.
From about 1792 to 1800 the Democratic Republican party was the beneficiary of the rise of numerous patriotic societies throughout the states, mainly in urban centers. At first interested in the public issues of the day, these societies soon campaigned for Democratic Republican candidates.
Party organization also advanced in Congress. By the 4th Congress (1795–97), Democratic Republicans held enough seats to challenge the dominant Federalists, and they held their first congressional caucus on Apr. 2, 1796, in a futile effort to defeat Jay's Treaty with Britain. Nonetheless, the caucus became a principal instrument of Jeffersonian power during the next two decades. It nominated Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe—the "Virginia Dynasty"—for the presidency, nominations that were tantamount to election. Moreover, the caucus enabled those presidents to promote their policies in the Congress, which then was the most influential branch of the national government.
After the election (1800) and reelection (1804) of Jefferson to the presidency, Federalist strength tended to decline everywhere except in New England. The great majority of practicing politicians, particularly those in the new states of the West, referred to themselves as Jeffersonians. New issues associated with the economic development of the West and the growing number of urban workers in the East demanded attention. The administrations (1817–25) of James Monroe were designated the Era of Good Feelings, meaning that there were no real party divisions; in fact, the period was one of one-party politics dominated by the Jeffersonians.
This situation ended with a split among the Democratic Republicans in 1824. In the election of that year the popular vote for presidential electors gave Andrew Jackson, a hero of the War of 1812, a plurality rather than the necessary majority in the electoral college. Under the Constitution, the final choice fell to the House of Representatives, where Speaker Henry Clay withdrew his own candidacy in favor of John Quincy Adams. The outraged and frustrated Jacksonians vowed to correct the betrayal of the popular will at the very next election and began to organize immediately to this end. They were joined by New York's Sen. Martin Van Buren, leader of the Albany Regency, a party machine whose influence extended well beyond that state. Jackson defeated Adams in the 1828 election.
Jacksonian Incorporation of the National Party
The organizing genius of Van Buren and of Jackson's political associates from Tennessee eventually restructured the national Democratic Republican party as well as the presidential system of government. Jackson's advisors in party matters, dubbed the Kitchen Cabinet, were instrumental in developing party organization in the states, activating a party press, and achieving programmatic cohesion in Congress. The Jacksonian leadership promoted extension of the suffrage to practically all white male citizens; they thereby brought urban workers into the electoral process and the Jacksonian coalition.
Although the Anti-Masonic and the National Republican parties were the first to hold national nominating conventions in 1831, the Democratic Republican convention of 1832 was the most significant in that it renominated an incumbent president, Jackson; chose his preferred candidate, Van Buren, for vice-president; and adopted the requirement of a two-thirds vote to make nominations. The two-thirds rule tended to magnify the strength of minority factions in the party and severely handicapped its capacity to achieve conciliatory coalitions over the next hundred years.
During his 8 years in office, Jackson was able to surmount the competing demands of various Democratic Republican factions—for more federal money to develop and protect the western frontier, for higher tariffs to protect Northern manufactured goods, for less federal spending and lower taxes—by rallying them against the Bank of the United States's petition for a recharter. However, the seeds of a more fundamental issue were planted by South Carolina's demand for tariff reduction. Led by former vice-president John C. Calhoun, a special convention in that state called for the nullification of the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 on grounds that any state had the sovereign right to nullify a federal law.
This extreme state rights position provoked Jackson to obtain a Force Act empowering him to use armed force to carry out federal laws in any state. Although this crisis was ended by a compromise in 1833, the basic issues remained unresolved. The right of states to nullify led inevitably to the question of whether states had the right to secede.
Slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction
As Americans moved westward into the territories acquired from 1803 to 1848, those from the North carried their traditions of family farming and free labor and those from the South carried their plantation economy and slavery. These antithetical moralities, competing economic systems, and distinct cultures became engaged in a contest for control of the new territories, bringing them into the Union as either free states or slave states. In view of its dependence on popular support in both the North and the South, the Democratic party was under particular pressure to: forestall bloodshed at the frontiers; moderate the adamant abolitionists of the North; and maintain the agriculture economy, slave supported though it was, of the South.
The issues so fragmented the party that its next several presidents were able to maintain themselves in office for only one term each: Van Buren (1837–41), James K. Polk (1845–49), Franklin Pierce (1853–57), and James Buchanan (1857–61). The climax of the party crisis came at the 1860 national conventions. The party split, and separate conventions of Southerners and Northerners nominated John C. Breckinridge and Stephen A. Douglas, respectively. The division gave the election to the nominee of the newly created Republican party, Abraham Lincoln. Secession and Civil War followed.
With Southern Democrats removed from national politics by the war and, later, Reconstruction, the party's factionalism took the form of an East-West regional controversy. Lincoln managed to keep the Democrats divided by choosing a War Democrat, Andrew Johnson, as his running mate in 1864. The Radical Republicans in Congress, proponents of a vindictive Reconstruction policy after the war, kept the Democrats divided in other ways: by harassing Johnson throughout his term when he succeeded to the presidency upon Lincoln's assassination, and by legislating a military occupation of the South that kept those states Republican through most of the Reconstruction period.
A final crisis was the disputed Hayes-Tilden presidential election of 1876, the outcome of which rested on the disputed returns of three Republican-controlled states in the South. Although the Democrat Samuel J. Tilden won a majority of the national popular vote, Democrats acquiesced to Rutherford B. Hayes's election in exchange for ending the federal occupation of the South. The way was paved for a return of Southern Democrats to local power and to participation in the affairs of the national party.
In the post–Civil War period, the Democratic party had to confront two serious internal problems. The first was the reincorporation of its Southern wing into the nation's political life; the second was the flagrant corruption of certain Democratic city machines such as the Tweed Ring (see Tweed, William M.) of New York. Tilden's efforts to rebuild the national party also had to reckon with the conflict between the easy-credit agrarian interests of the West and the sound-money commercial and banking interests of the East. In search for a unifying platform, Tilden made reform his grand issue: reform in the cities, now crowded with immigrants and industrial workers; and reform in the presidency, beset by scandal during the administrations (1869–77) of Ulysses S. Grant.
By 1884, Tilden was ready to turn the reins of party leadership over to his fellow New Yorker, Gov. Grover Cleveland; Cleveland's reform achievements in that office and fiscal conservatism made him particularly acceptable to the Eastern wing of the party. Southern Democrats were by now well along in creating the "Solid South", a one-party Democratic section, by driving black Republicans out of office and making it impossible for blacks to participate either as Democrats or as voters. Racism, the Ku Klux Klan, and a depressed agricultural economy promoted this trend.
The Democratic revival put Cleveland into the presidency. He supported civil-service reform and, despite a vocal protectionist minority in the party, tariff rates sufficient for revenue purposes only. The silver mines of the Mountain States were pouring forth ore; farmers, always needing cheap currency and easy credit, began to press for conversion of the wholly gold-standard currency to one using both gold and silver as legal tender. Cleveland was steadfast in his support of gold. Party leaders in the South and the West insisted, however, on a liberal coinage of silver currency. Free silver was the issue that made William Jennings Bryan the party's nominee for president in 1896.
Only 36 years of age at the time of his nomination, the "boy orator of the Platte" was to be the most magnetic figure in the party until Woodrow Wilson won the presidency in 1912. Renominated in 1900 and 1908, Bryan addressed the agrarian discontent of the South and the Midwest and the unionizing aspirations of the emerging labor movement; he hoped thereby to build a potent coalition. He popularized such reforms as a federal income tax, direct election of U.S. senators, women's suffrage, and public accountability for campaign expenditures. Bryan's progressivism was echoed in many of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt's policy postures and in those of Wilson, then the reform governor of New Jersey. Bryan maneuvered a stalemated national convention toward nominating Wilson in 1912.
Wilson's progressivism rode the tide of a turbulent political era: millions of immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe; machine politics rampant in many cities; the nativism of the Ku Klux Klan reviving in the South; World War I; a labor movement gaining stride; industrial trusts growing in power; and women demanding the vote. A political scientist by profession, Wilson was the first to write about the close relationship between party and presidential leadership. In a parliamentary fashion, his legislative program was systematically and aggressively promoted by party colleagues in Congress. The Wilsonian program established the Federal Reserve System; a new railroad labor arbitration process; antitrust rules; farm-loan banks; and similar progressive legislation. Wilson also brought into government a generation of young Democrats whose influence would be profoundly felt in Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal 20 years later.
New Deal and Fair Deal
Despite his philosophical interest in party government, Wilson tended to neglect Democratic party organization. He was unable to rally Democratic voters to support his vision of a League of Nations. His illness left the national convention of 1920 leaderless and so divided that 44 ballots were needed to nominate James M. Cox. The party was split along several lines: city machine bosses versus Southern Klansmen; drys versus wets on the issue of prohibition; and conservatives versus Wilsonian progressives. These factions reappeared in 1924 in a national convention that ran for 103 ballots. Finally, in 1928, the city machines and the progressives joined to nominate Gov. Alfred E. Smith of New York, the first Roman Catholic to receive a presidential nomination. Although Smith attracted millions of recent immigrants to the poll for the first time, he lost much of the normally solid South.
The Depression of the 1930s and the nomination of Franklin D. Roosevelt reunited the Democratic party in 1932. Roosevelt's New Deal, and his unprecedented three-time reelection (1936, 1940, and 1944) brought together a political coalition that made the Democrats the nation's majority party for the next half century. In the national electorate, roughly two voters identified themselves as Democrats for every one Republican. Roosevelt managed to unite important segments of union labor, small farmers, liberal intellectuals, consumer-oriented businesspeople, urban machines, Catholics, Jews, Southerners, blacks, and several ethnic minorities. The problem for each succeeding Democratic national ticket has been to bolster and maintain the coalition.
With millions of workers unemployed, thousands of businesses and farms bankrupt, and banks closing, the New Deal mobilized emergency relief for the starving, work for the unemployed, credit and agricultural price supports for the farmers, reform for the nation's financial institutions, social security for the elderly, and better conditions for workers. Prolabor legislation spurred a phenomenal growth in unionization and new directions in labor-management relations.
The New Deal era wrought many structural changes in the Democratic party. As the patronage and social services of the federal government grew more pervasive, the functions and resources of Democratic machines in the cities diminished. Old political bosses began to be swept away by insurgents and reformers, and old machines began to wither. With the repeal (1936) of the two-thirds nominating rule in the convention, the influence of the Southern wing declined in the national party. Organized labor became active in grass-roots registration and election campaigns and occasionally displaced local party machines. The World War II military experience of many black Americans and the migration, during and after the war, of many blacks from the South into the manufacturing centers of the North stirred awareness that led to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
Reelected for a fourth term in 1944, Roosevelt died soon after and was succeeded by Harry S. Truman; hisFair Deal program was dominated by his defense of organized labor and his vigorous support of civil-rights programs for black citizens. Many Southern Democratic leaders registered their disapproval by supporting the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948; consequently, fundamental issues of party discipline and party loyalty were raised and debated at Democratic national conventions for the next quarter-century.
Truman declined to run for reelection in 1952, and the party nominated Adlai E. Stevenson, whose candidacy spurred the development of a Democratic club movement. The clubs—volunteer local organizations—attracted the more affluent, issue-oriented, liberal, antimachine rank-and-file; they became significant in such states as Illinois, California, and New York. Stevenson's Republican opponent, however, was the popular World War II general Dwight D. Eisenhower, who won handily.
Eisenhower also won the votes of substantial numbers of Southerners; this began a gradual long-term shift from Democratic to Republican voting preferences in that region. The Eisenhower years and the civil rights movement eventually brought competitive two-party politics to the South and diminished or eliminated the racially discriminatory character of most state and local Democratic party practices in that section. Perhaps the last national candidacy with racial overtones was that of George Wallace in 1968 and 1972. In contrast, the nomination and election (1976) of the former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, to the presidency indicated the resurgent political influence of a new South working to end racism, poverty, and one-party politics.
New Frontier, Great Society, and Vietnam
In 1960, John F. Kennedy recovered the presidency for the Democrats. Kennedy came from a family long involved in Boston machine politics and was the first Catholic elected president. His liberal New Frontier program and his active support of the civil rights cause led to significant new legislation, most of which, however, was passed under his successor.
Kennedy's assassination, in Dallas in November 1963, brought his vice-president, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, to the presidency. Although his personal style alienated Northern liberals and the Kennedy organization, Johnson proved an ardent supporter of social reform. His administration was notable for Great Society programs of educational, welfare, and civil rights legislation as well as for its devastating failures in connection with the Vietnam War. The war divided the Democratic party and the nation with a bitterness reminiscent of the Civil War period.
During the cold war years of the late 1940s and '50s, U.S. foreign-policy makers, including President Truman's secretary of state Dean Acheson and President Eisenhower's secretary of state John Foster Dulles, responded to all Communist military actions as though they originated from a single source, Moscow. Thus the Truman administration committed U.S. troops to fight a costly war in Korea to halt the aggression of North Korean Communists (see Korean War). After Vietnam was partitioned in 1954, the United States became more and more committed to the support of the anti-Communist regime in the south. President Kennedy sent military advisors; President Johnson sent troops and began intensive bombing of North Vietnam. By 1966, Americans were deeply divided over the strategies for resolving the war in Vietnam. The deepest divisions were manifest among the leadership of the Democratic party.
Crystallizing the opposition to Johnson's policies in Vietnam, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, John Kennedy's brother, sought the presidential nomination in 1968. Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, hoping to capitalize on racial tensions in the cities and the South, prepared his own challenge. After his narrow win over McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary election, Johnson announced that he would not be a candidate. Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey then entered the race and won the nomination at the tumultuous convention in Chicago. The disarray at the convention, where antiwar demonstrators clashed with Mayor Richard Daley's Chicago police, blemished Humphrey's cause and contributed to his defeat by Richard M. Nixon. Another source of Democratic weakness in 1968 was the massive defection of blue-collar and Southern voters to Wallace's third party.
The party's wounds persisted for the next half-dozen years. At the 1972 nominating convention antiwar, black, young, and women delegates were pitted against labor and party regulars. Humphrey was defeated for the nomination by Sen. George McGovern, who stressed party reform and an end to the Vietnam War. Feeling ran high, and McGovern was unable to unite the factions. Many former Wallace supporters voted for Nixon, and many other Democrats stayed home; McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
When President Nixon was driven from office by the Watergate scandal in 1974, the Democrats were ready to reunite. Excellent results in 1974 congressional and state elections and good prospects for 1976 helped dissolve hard feelings; the Democrats' first midterm national conference produced a party charter in December 1974.
Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia, began early to campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. His lack of experience in Washington helped him with voters disgusted by Watergate abuses, and Carter's primary-election victories carried him to the nomination. Aided by an unusually high turnout of black voters, especially in the South, Carter won a close race against President Gerald R. Ford.
The Carter presidency, however, marked a precipitous decline in the fortunes of the Democratic party. Relations between President Carter and the Democratic Congress were never close, and many of Carter's initiatives were blocked. Although Carter signed the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II; see arms control) with the USSR and played a key role in the first peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, his administration was plagued by a reputation for inefficacy and weakness. Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, by concentrating on the steep rise in inflation under Carter and on what many saw as a decline in U.S. military preparedness—epitomized by the Iranian hostage crisis—defeated President Carter in 1980, carrying 44 states. The Democrats lost their majority in the Senate for the first time since 1954.
In the 1984 campaign the Democrat, former vice-president Walter F. Mondale, chose a woman, N.Y. Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro, as his running mate. Although they campaigned on such issues as reducing the large budget deficit, the popular President Reagan overwhelmed them at the polls, winning 59% of the popular vote. The Democrats retained their majority in the House, although it was diminished, and gained two seats in the Republican-dominated Senate. They recaptured the Senate, 55-45, in the 1986 midterm elections. During the Reagan presidency Democrats held a majority of House seats, governorships, and state legislatures.
The 1988 presidential campaign between Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, a Democrat, and Vice-President George Bush ended with another Republican victory—although the Democrats increased their congressional majorities. A pattern of executive-legislative "gridlock" that had begun under Reagan continued. Partly owing to a recession in 1991–92, the Democratic governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, a self-styled centrist running on a program of moderate reform, defeated Bush in 1992. Two years later, vilifying Clinton as a tax-and-spend liberal, the Republicans captured both houses of Congress. They also won the governorships of seven of the eight largest states. Clinton, nonetheless, was reelected in 1996 with an impressive 379 electoral votes—though with only 49% of the popular vote. The Democratic victory was tempered by continued Republican control of the House and Senate. The midterm elections of 1998, held in the midst of an attempt to impeach Clinton in connection with the Whitewater affair, brought modest gains for the Democrats instead of the expected losses. The Republican majority in the House went ahead with the impeachment, which was voted in December 1998; the Senate acquitted the president, however, in February 1999, voting 55-45 against the first charge (perjury) and 50-50 on the second (obstruction of justice).
The unpopularity of the whole impeachment process gave the Democrats high hopes for the election in 2000, but the party's presidential nominee, Vice-President Al Gore, still had to struggle to shake off certain Clinton associations during the presidential campaign. He picked Connecticut senator Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate; Lieberman was the first Jew to run for vice-president on a major-party ticket. In November, Gore and Lieberman won the popular vote for president and vice-president, but the outcome of the election came down to a disputed vote count in Florida. The results in that state were not finalized until a month after the balloting, following protracted legal contests and two U.S. Supreme Court interventions, after which Florida's 25 electoral votes went to Republican George W. Bush (son of the former president), who thus won nationally. Just as the country was evenly split, so was Congress: the Republicans retained a small majority in the House, but the Senate was divided 50-50. Within months, however, in May 2001, Democrats gained a majority in the Senate when Vermont Republican James Jeffords left his party and became an Independent. They lost that majority again in the 2002 elections, when they also gave up some seats in the House.
The 2004 elections, which some had labeled as the most important in a generation, were a total loss for the Democrats. Not only did their standard-bearers, John Kerry and John Edwards, fail to defeat President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, but they saw their minority numbers diminish even further in both the Senate and the House; moreover, they suffered the additional indignity of having their ten-year Senate leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, unseated in his bid for reelection.
The Contemporary Democratic Party
Throughout its history the Democratic party has called itself the party of the people, a title that was justified by its traditional support, which tended to be less prosperous, less skilled occupationally, and less educated than Republicans. Nevertheless, the party learned in 1980 that it could no longer take for granted the votes of groups that had been traditionally ranked among the Democrats. Disaffection with Carter's economic policies sent many union members and blacks over to the Republican side, and the once solidly Democratic South became increasingly Republican. Although the Democrats reclaimed some of the so-called Reagan Democrats for their presidential candidate in 1992, by 1994 the party, according to polls, had fewer loyalists than the Republicans. The elections of 1996, however, showed increased Democratic strength among ethnic minorities and women, a pattern repeated in 1998 and 2000. Despite the fact that the electorate appeared to favor the Democratic party on specific issues leading up to the 2002 elections, turnout was low on Election Day, and the intense campaigning of the popular President Bush apparently tipped the balance to the Republicans. The 2004 elections, a clear choice between Democratic liberalism, however mild, and Republican conservatism, were won convincingly by the Republicans. The election results showed the United States a country firmly divided politically, with northeastern, Pacific Coast, and upper Midwest states voting Democratic, and a solid phalanx of southern states and those of the industrial Midwest firmly in the Republican camp. The 2004 Republican victory was gained on the electorate's positions on "morality" issues—which at the time of the election were loosely defined, from the Republican viewpoint, as antiabortion, anti–gay marriage, and anti–gun control—rather than on foreign- or domestic-policy questions. In the aftermath of the election, leaders of the Democratic party as well as its rank and file stepped back to ponder how they might bridge the gap between their beliefs and those of the morality voters in order for them to return to even a semblance of power.
In the 2006 midterm elections, Republican scandals and anger over the Iraq War prompted U.S. voters to seek major changes in their government. The Democrats capitalized on this attitude, winning control of both the House Representatives and the Senate. They also increased from 22 to 28 the number of the nation's governorships that they held.
The year 2008 turned out to be an exciting one for the Democratic party. It was marked by a hard-fought primary season between Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Although Obama emerged as the party’s presidential nominee, Clinton received some 18 million primary votes. This marked the closest a woman has come to representing a major party in a U.S. presidential election. Throughout the general campaign, Obama argued that Republican nominee John McCain represented a continuation of the policies of the unpopular President Bush. Among Obama's promises were a plan to provide a form of universal health care, a quick and orderly end to the Iraq War, and tax breaks for the middle class. An escalating international financial crisis dominated the news in the weeks leading to the election. Most voters seemed to prefer Obama's ability to manage the economy to McCain's.
On Nov. 4, 2008, Obama and running mate Joe Biden won a lopsided victory. He thus became the nation's first African American president. The party also gained seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives. It picked up one governorship as well. The gain in the number of governorships held by Democrats was subsequently lost, however. In January 2009, Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, resigned as governor of Arizona to join the Obama cabinet as secretary of homeland security. Jan Brewer, a Republican, succeeded her as Arizona’s governor. The Democrats also lost the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia in the November 2009 elections. They did win, however, all five special elections in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009.
A special election was held on Jan. 19, 2010, to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. State senator Scott Brown defeated the state's attorney general Martha Coakley. He was the first Republican to be elected to the U.S. Senate from the state since 1972. The Democrats' loss removed their filibuster-proof majority. This made it more challenging to pass the health-care legislation that had been their focus in 2009.
In 2010 the Democrats passed historic health-care legislation, which was designed to extend coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans while reducing costs, as well as a significant reform of the financial system. The benefits of the health-care bill, however, would not be fully introduced for four years. The Republicans denounced it as "socialism" and stoked popular sentiment against it by asserting that it would actually raise costs and reduce services. At the same time, popular anxiety ran high over the administration's inability to reduce unemployment from its high of 9.6%, a lingering consequence of the 2008 financial crisis. In the midterm elections of Nov. 2, 2010, the Democrats lost 60 seats in the House, forfeiting control to the Republicans. The Democrats remained in control of the Senate, but their majority was reduced to 53.
The following years of divided control were marked by political gridlock. Democrats beat back Republican efforts to repeal the health-care bill or to force immediate cuts to federal spending, but Republicans frustrated Democratic efforts to quicken the pace of economic recovery. The economy improved but did so very gradually, with unemployment still at 7.9% on Election Day. In the tight election of 2012, President Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney, a business executive and former Massachusetts governor. Democrats strengthened their position in the Senate somewhat, but the Republicans retained control of the House. In the 2014 elections, the Democrats lost the Senate to the Republicans. The unemployment rate had fallen to 5.8%, yet wages had stagnated and voters continued to feel anxious about the economy.
Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for the 2016 nomination. Judging by her standing in early polls and endorsements from prominent Democrats, she was the strongest candidate in history who was not an incumbent president or vice-president. She was confronted, however, with an unusual challenger. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, age 74, was an independent who had caucused with Democrats until he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. A self-described "democratic socialist," he advocated the equivalent of a "political revolution," terminology that was not traditionally successful in American politics. Despite the rhetoric, his proposals were generally within the bounds of the Democratic party's liberal wing. Yet while Clinton's campaign focused on specific, often technical policies to address specific issues, as is typical for Democrats, Sanders emphasized concepts and grandiose claims of what was achievable. He surprised many observers with strong showings in primaries and especially in caucuses, raised millions of dollars in small donations, and persisted far longer than expected. Although Clinton won the nomination by a comfortable margin, Sanders withheld his endorsement until he had successfully shifted the Democratic platform to the left on issues of interest to his campaign. Even after he had endorsed her at the convention, some of his supporters threatened to withhold support from a candidate that Sanders had denounced as corrupt. Some Democratic leaders feared the rise of an irreconcilable faction comparable to the Tea Party movement in the Republican party. Others saw the often young and enthusiastic Sanders supporters as a way to reenergize the party. In the end, Clinton lost the election to Republican candidate Donald J. Trump. Clinton actually won the popular vote by 48.2% to 46.1%; nevertheless, Trump won the electoral college by 306 to 232. With 2.8 million more votes than her opponent, Clinton had, by far, the largest popular vote advantage of any losing candidate in history.
The Democrats were in a weak position at the end of 2016. Although they had gained a few seats in the House and Senate, they failed to win control of either chamber. Moreover, many of the party's congressional leaders were in their seventies. In the states, Democrats controlled the governorship and the whole legislature in only five states, compared with 25 for the Republicans. Thus they had a shallow pool of experienced, relatively young people with which to rebuild the party.