The Democratic Party is the longest-existing political party in the US, and arguably the world. But in its over 180 year existence, it’s completed a remarkable ideological and geographic transformation. Originally a staunch defender of Southern slavery, the party now wins the support of most nonwhite voters. Once an advocate of rural interests against coastal elites, the party now draws much of its strength from cities and coastal areas. These maps tell the tale of the Democratic Party’s origins, its various metamorphoses, and the sources of its strength — and weaknesses — today.
1) Democrats: The party of Andrew Jackson
For 28 years after Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800, his party, deemed Democratic-Republicans by today’s political scientists but commonly referred to as Republicans then, controlled the presidency and dominated US politics. But by the mid-1820s, that party had begun to fracture. Factions formed around politicians from different regions with competing ambitions — one of whom was Andrew Jackson, who had gained national fame as a general during the War of 1812. In his 1824 presidential bid, Jackson won pluralities of both the popular vote and electoral college. But since no candidate won an outright majority, the election went to the House of Representatives, which chose John Quincy Adams as president. Jackson quickly became the leading opposition figure to Adams’ presidency, and in their 1828 rematch, the results of which are shown here, he won broad support everywhere outside the Northeast, and swept into office. At the time, his supporters didn’t have an official name, and were usually called “Jackson men.” But because they argued that they had the popular will, they distinguished themselves from their rivals by calling themselves “Democratic” Republicans — and eventually, just “Democrats.”
2) Democrats: The party of Indian removal
One major issue animated Jackson’s presidency from his very first year: the forced removal of Indians living east of the Mississippi River, to clear the way for more white settlement. This map shows the removal of the “Five Civilized Tribes” — Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole — that ensued after Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law in 1830. Indians were rounded up from their homes, and sent to concentration camps and on forced marches. About 46,000 people were expelled during Jackson’s presidency. The issue was one of the most important in defining the new Democratic Party — according to historian Daniel Walker Howe, an analysis of Congressional votes at the time found that “voting on Indian affairs proved to be the most consistent predictor of partisan affiliation.”
3) Democrats: The party of Manifest Destiny
With the Indians moved out, the Democratic Party turned its sights westward. By the 1840s, the party had embraced the idea of “manifest destiny” — that (white) Americans were divinely entitled to domination of the whole North American continent. In his book The Battle Cry of Freedom, historian James McPherson calls Manifest Destiny “mainly a Democratic doctrine,” and writes that the party “pressed for the expansion of American institutions across the whole of North America, whether the residents — Indians, Spaniards, Mexicans, Canadians — wanted them or not.” This map shows all 19th century westward expansion in the contiguous US, but pay close attention to the westernmost regions. Three massive expansions — the annexation of Texas, the Oregon acquisition, and the postwar Mexican Cession — occurred during the presidency of Democrat James K. Polk. The Mexican-American War in particular, pushed by Polk and criticized by the opposition Whigs, expanded US holdings all the way to California — and set the stage for controversy over whether slavery should be expanded to these newly-acquired territories.
The Civil War and its aftermath
4) Democrats were the party of slavery
As the 1850s began, the question over whether slavery should be allowed in new territories and states became the major dividing line in American politics — and the Democratic Party more and more clearly became the most important institutional supporter of slavery. Their main rivals, the Whigs, were split on the issue regionally, but even most Democrats outside the South were expected to refrain from criticizing the so-called “peculiar institution.” Furthermore, Democratic conventions had a rule requiring two-thirds approval for any presidential nominee, which effectively gave the South veto power over the choice. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act — passed under Democratic President Franklin Pierce, by a Democrat-controlled Congress — set the stage for even stronger sectionalism in US politics, over slavery. Most notably, the new law outright repealed the decades-old ban on slavery north of the 36°30′ line, instead allowing residents of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to vote on whether to permit slavery by popular sovereignty. The law and ensuing bloody conflict in Kansas provoked a tremendous backlash in the North, and was the death knell for the regionally divided Whig Party. An irrevocable split between Northern and Southern Whigs allowed for the rise of a new Northern party organized around opposition to expanding slavery — the Republicans.
5) The Democratic Party fractured during the Civil War
Crisis finally arrived with the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president, the subsequent secession of 11 Southern states, and the breakout of the Civil War. The new Confederacy was suspicious of party organizations, so though former Democrats like Jefferson Davis played major roles in the new government, the Democratic Party no longer operated in the South during the war. In the Union, however, the party remained Lincoln’s main opposition. There was a range of opinion, including moderate Peace Democrats who preferred a negotiated settlement, Copperheads who wanted to cease the war immediately and blamed abolitionists for provoking it, and War Democrats who wanted peace through victory. In 1864, Republicans pushed a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, which went down to defeat in the House in June because 57 of the chamber’s 72 Democrats opposed it, as shown on this map. As Lincoln ran for reelection that year with the support of some War Democrats, the Peace Democrats fought back with what historian William Lee Miller called “the most explicitly and virulently racist campaign by a major party in American history.” Democrats constantly stoked fears that Lincoln’s policies would lead to miscegenation and racial equality. The party had performed well in the 1862 midterms, and as late as August 1864 Lincoln expected to lose. But the fall of Atlanta in early September restored public confidence in Lincoln’s handling of the war. He swept to a landslide victory that November, and passage and ratification of the 13th Amendment soon followed.
6) The Democratic domination of the South
After the Civil War, it was clear that the Republican Party was the nation’s governing party. In the next 11 presidential elections, spanning 1868 to 1908, Democrats only managed to win twice (Grover Cleveland’s two nonconsecutive terms). They held the Senate for just four years in that 40-year timespan, and the House of Representatives for 16. In the South, however, the Democrats became effectively the only party — a situation that would last for decades, since the Republican Party was so closely associated with Lincoln, the war, and the end of slavery. This map shows how the South overwhelmingly voted for Democrats in presidential elections. But the dominance existed at state and local government levels as well, leading to constant abuses of the rights of freed blacks. “Long into the twentieth century, the South remained a one-party region under the control of a reactionary ruling elite who used the same violence and fraud that had helped defeat Reconstruction to stifle internal dissent,” wrote historian Eric Foner in his book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.
7) The party of farmers and silver
After Reconstruction, racial issues receded from the national debate — and instead, monetary policy became the hot-button issue of the late 19th century. The 1873 adoption of the gold standard and ending of silver coinage was incredibly controversial among farmers, who blamed the policy change and the business interests who supported it for various economic hardships. As a result, farmers across the South and West began to gravitate toward the Democrats. Matters came to a head in the election of 1896, when Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan attempted to mobilize a national populist coalition against gold-supporting capitalists, saying his opponents “shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” But he failed — the rural states that backed him weren’t enough for a majority, because more populous states in the Northeast and Great Lakes voted Republican. “McKinley’s triumph indicated that the Republicans had secured control of America’s industrial base,” wrote historian HW Brands in his book American Colossus. “Urban workers crossed class lines to vote with their employers rather than with the farmers of the South and West.” They would keep doing so — letting the Republican Party dominate national politics — for decades.
Embracing government activism
8) Woodrow Wilson and Progressivism
The Progressive political tradition arose in the US as the 19th century slipped into the 20th. It focused on fighting corruption, countering the power of monopolistic trusts, social reform, and the active use of government to try to improve people’s lives. Originally, there were progressive elements in both parties (and outside them), with Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson as leading figures. This map shows the electoral college results of the 1912 presidential election, which pitted Wilson and Roosevelt (now heading a new Progressive Party) against each other and the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft. Wilson won, and Democrats enacted various economic and governmental reforms during his presidency, such as an antitrust law and an income tax. Eventually, the Democratic Party became known as the main home for progressives.
9) The party elected to fight the Great Depression
This is the map that finally restored the Democratic Party to dominance of national politics. After the 1920s decade of Republican rule, generally pro-business policies, and a booming economy, the bottom finally fell out when the Great Depression crushed the presidency of Herbert Hoover. The discrediting of laissez-faire ideas and the inability of Republicans to deal with the crisis led to landslide Democratic victories in 1932, when, as this map shows, the average unemployment rate among gainful workers was 34.5 percent. Franklin D. Roosevelt swept into office and enacted the New Deal, perhaps the most sweeping domestic legislative program in American history. His administration also dramatically expanded the size of government and created the modern executive state.
10) The party of government spending
The New Deal — which became the emblematic liberal program for decades to come — included various attempts to boost the economy, jobs programs, laws expanding union powers, and the creation of Social Security. It also led to a lot of individual projects, ranging from infrastructure development to arts, that put people back to work and made clear the role government could play in American life. This map shows the sweep of New Deal projects across the country, from the Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga, Tennessee to a post office in Riverton, Wyoming. Head over to the Living New Deal website for the interactive version of the map, which shows the specifics of every single project.
11) The party of unions
In the decade after the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935, US union membership more than quadrupled, to 14.3 million workers, writes Rich Yeselson. This expansion provided a new and durable organizational base that became increasingly associated with just the Democratic Party. But unions didn’t flourish everywhere — they had particular trouble breaking into rural areas and the South. The expansion of union influence and power produced a backlash — both among the Republican Party and business interests, and in the still-Democratic South, which was suspicious of union organizing. In 1947, these two elements joined together to enact the Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto. The law “stopped labor dead in its tracks at a point when unions were large, growing, and confident of their economic and political power,” Yeselson writes. States were now permitted to pass “right to work” laws that prevented mandatory union membership among employees — and many soon did.
12) The split over civil rights
The Democrats’ coalition of the mid-20th century was divided between Southerners who supported segregation, liberal activists trying to end it, and others outside the South who were happy to look the other way. Eventually, though, the supporters of civil rights gained the upper hand, pushing through important civil rights and voting rights laws in the mid-1960s. This map shows states where Democratic senators voted for cloture for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, where they voted against it (which meant continuing the filibuster), or where the party had two senators whose votes were split. Nearly all Republicans voted in favor of cloture, which was invoked 71-29, but it was Democratic president Lyndon Johnson who signed it and the subsequent Voting Rights Act into law — which helped drive more and more black voters to embrace the party that had so long been associated with racial discrimination.
13) The (gradual) loss of the South
”I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” President Johnson said shortly after signing the Civil Rights Act, according to his aide Bill Moyers. Yet party loyalties take a long time to shake off, and while the South certainly appears lost to Democrats today, the break-up was very gradual. Democrats maintained control of the House of Representatives for an amazing 40 straight years between 1955 and 1994, in large part because of continued support from conservative Southerners, as shown in this map by Jonathan Davis at Arizona State University. The Senate, too, remained in Democratic hands for all but six of those years. Majority control didn’t necessarily mean the party could pass progressive bills, though, as many of the Southern conservatives frequently partnered with Republicans to block liberal initiatives. The South also provided the Democrats’ only two successful presidential candidates between 1968 and 2008 — Jimmy Carter, who won nearly every Southern state in 1976, and Bill Clinton, who won a few.
14) The antiwar movement
Democratic presidents began American involvement in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. But Vietnam created a tremendous political backlash in America, as hundreds of thousands were drafted and tens of thousands died for a war with no end in sight. This map shows five major examples of anti-Vietnam War protests between 1967 and 1968 — the fifth of which infamously occurred at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and spiraled into violence. Since the sixties, there’s been a dovish tradition in the Democratic Party — even if it isn’t always heeded. When George HW Bush took the Gulf War resolution to a vote in 1991, the chamber was controlled by Democrats — but just 18 percent of Democratic senators, and 32 percent of Democratic House members, voted in favor of war. After 9/11, more Democrats voted for George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, though many on the left remained suspicious. When that effort foundered, anger over it helped energize the Democrats and restore them to Congress in 2006. Senator Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize force in Iraq similarly helped propel Barack Obama to the nomination, and the presidency, in 2008.
Today’s Democratic coalition
15) Democrats are strong in big cities
This map of New York’s political donors is from a series by Crowdpac that plots out the address of every disclosed political donor in America, and uses blue dots to mark Democratic donors and red ones to mark Republicans. We see here that NYC is overwhelmingly blue, which makes sense — according to an analysis by Richard Florida, 11 of the 15 largest US cities voted for Obama over Romney in 2012, and Obama performed particularly well in denser cities. “Affluent, high-tech, creative class metros” like New York and Los Angeles are “mostly blue,” while “less advantaged, less skilled metros in the Sun Belt and even in the Midwest are increasingly red,” Florida writes.
16) Richer Americans vote Republican, poorer ones vote Democratic
In recent years, the richest states — many of which are in the Northeast or on the West Coast — have tended to vote Democratic. But that doesn’t mean that the Democrats are the party of the rich. These maps, from Andrew Gelman’s book “Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State,” separate how the richest third and poorest third of the population in each state voted in the 2004 presidential election (which was won by George W. Bush). Gelman’s analysis shows that the richest third of nearly every state’s electorate voted for Bush, while the poorest third of voters in most states opted for Democrat John Kerry.
17) Democrats perform badly among evangelical Protestants
Here’s another map of where Democrats are strongest today — in places where there aren’t many evangelical Protestants. American politics weren’t always incredibly polarized by religion, but restrictions on school prayer and the expansion of abortion rights helped trigger the mobilization of the Christian right. These issues weren’t purely partisan when they first came up, but gradually, Democrats and the liberal establishment became known for protecting abortion rights, defending the separation of church and state, and (more slowly) expanding gay rights.
18) Few Blue Dog Democrats remain
After the dramatic defeat of many House Democrats in 1994, the more conservative members of the party felt they needed a group to better coordinate them — or at least a label they could use to distinguish themselves from the party’s liberals. So the “Blue Dog Democrats” were formed. Its members tended to be more pro-business and more socially conservative. By 2009, with the Democrats back in control of Congress for Obama’s first year, the coalition had swelled to include 54 members of the House, and great pressure was placed on Blue Dogs to support Obama’s agenda on health reform and cap-and-trade — which many of them did. The backlash broke the Blue Dogs, and the vast majority of the coalition either retired or was defeated in subsequent elections. These maps show the decline in House districts represented by Blue Dogs from 2009 to 2013. The Blue Dogs’ ranks will shrink further after the Democrats’ 2014 drubbing, to either 14 or 15 (depending on a recount).
19) The party of unions
Labor remains a key pillar in the Democratic coalition in states where it still has a presence. But union membership has dropped so much, and unions have been so weakened, that the party now has to look elsewhere for much of its financial support and organizational muscle — to rich donors and social issue interest groups. Private-sector union membership has particularly plummeted, from 35 percent or so in the 1950s to just 6.9 percent in 2011. This map shows the percentage of each state’s 2011 labor force that was in a union — and makes it clear that Democrats perform better in more unionized states. Measures that would weaken unions further, like right to work laws or restrictions on collective bargaining for public employees, are key pillars of the Republican agenda in many states today.
The future of the party
20) The growth of the nonwhite electorate
Since LBJ’s 1964 landslide, Republicans have won more of the white vote than Democrats in every single presidential election. Initially, this led to the Democrats losing the presidency quite frequently. But as the share of the nonwhite population has grown, Democratic prospects in presidential elections have improved — and the party has won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. “Every year, the nonwhite proportion of the electorate grows by about half a percentage point—meaning that in every presidential election, the minority share of the vote increases by 2 percent, a huge amount in a closely divided country,” Jonathan Chait has written. By 2020, he added, “nonwhite voters should rise from a quarter of the 2008 electorate to one third.” This map, from PolicyLink, shows one projection of how much US population growth in the next 30 years will be due to people of color.
21) Democrats and the white vote
Though Barack Obama won the 2012 presidential election, he only picked up about 40 percent of the white vote — the lowest for a Democrat in decades. But this decline wasn’t evenly distributed. The New Republic posted an excellent map that makes this clear with a county-level comparison of Al Gore’s performance in 2000 to Barack Obama’s performance in 2012. In the red counties, Obama did better than Gore, and in the blue counties, he did worse. “Democrats have a problem with Southern whites, not all whites,” Nate Cohn wrote, pointing out that Obama won heavily-white New Hampshire, Iowa, and Wisconsin. The party performed less well among whites in the 2014 midterms, though, so we’ll see how things turn out in 2016.
22) Weakness in the states
The Obama presidency has brought some major setbacks for Democrats in the states, as you can see in this map, which shows the partisan balance of state legislatures after the 2014 midterms. Democrats ended up with full control in a mere 11 state legislatures, while the GOP got full control of 30. The number of states where Democrats control both the governorship and the state legislature has been cut to 7 — the fewest since the Civil War. If the states are the “laboratories of democracy,” as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it, it’s the Republican Party, not the Democrats, who will be the ones conducting experiments in the next few years.
23) Growth of Hispanics in key states
The growth of the Hispanic population has been particularly important to presidential-year Democratic math. These maps, from Pew, show the growth of that population from 1980 to 2011. This growth already helped California and New Mexico become solidly Democratic states on the presidential level, and helped tip swing states Florida and Colorado toward Barack Obama too. It also gives political context to President Obama’s deportation relief executive action of November 2014: Democrats believe that the future of their party relies on the strength of their bond with the Hispanic electorate.
- 42 maps that explain World War II
- 40 maps and charts that explain the 2014 midterms
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Developer Yuri Victor
Editor Ezra Klein
Lead Photo: Lucian / Washington Post / Getty
Update: Clarified that the term “Democratic-Republicans” is the technical term used for Jefferson’s party by political scientists today, not at the time.