The Democratic Party is the oldest voter-based political party in the world and the oldest existing political party in the United States. The party's modern institutions were formed in the 1830s and 1840s.
Known as the party of the "common man," the early Democratic Party stood for individual rights and state sovereignty, but opposed banks and high tariffs. During the Second Party System (from 1832 to the mid-1850s) under Presidents Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk, the Democrats usually bested the opposition Party by narrow margins.
From 1860 to 1932 in the era of the American Civil War to the Great Depression, the opposing Republican Party, organized in the mid-1850s from the ruins of the Whig Party and some other smaller splinter groups, was dominant in presidential politics. The Democrats elected only two Presidents during this period: Grover Cleveland (in 1884 and 1892) and Woodrow Wilson (in 1912 and 1916). Over the same period, the Democrats proved more competitive with the Republicans in Congressional politics, enjoying House of Representatives majorities (as in the 65th Congress) in 15 of the 36 Congresses elected, although only in five of these did they form the majority in the Senate. Furthermore, the Democratic Party was split between the Bourbon Democrats, representing Eastern business interests; and the agrarian elements comprising poor farmers in the South and West. The agrarian element, marching behind the slogan of free silver (i.e. in favor of inflation), captured the party in 1896 and nominated William Jennings Bryan in the 1896, 1900 and 1908 presidential elections, although he lost every time. Both Bryan and Wilson were leaders of the progressive movement in the United States (1890s–1920s) and opposed imperialistic expansion abroad while sponsoring liberal reforms at home.
Political parties are collective entities that organize competitions for political offices. The members of a political party contest elections under a shared label. In a broad definition, political parties are the entire apparatus that supports the election of a group of candidates, including voters and volunteers who identify with a particular political party, the official party organizations that support the election of that party's candidates, and legislators in the government who are affiliated with the party.
Political parties are distinguished from other political groups and clubs, such as political factions or interest groups, mostly by the fact that parties are focused on electing candidates whereas interest groups are focused on advancing a policy agenda. This is related to other features that sometimes distinguish parties from other political organizations, including a larger membership, greater stability over time, and deeper connection to the electorate.
In many countries the notion of a political party is defined in law, and governments may specify requirements for an organization to legally qualify as a political party.
In some definitions of political parties, a party is an organization that advances a specific set of ideological or policy goals, or that organizes people whose ideas about politics are similar. However, many political parties are not primarily motivated by ideology or policy; for example, political parties can be mainly clientelistic or patronage based organizations, or tools for advancing the career of a specific political entrepreneur.
Starting with 32nd President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the party dominated during the Fifth Party System, which lasted from 1932 until about 1970s. In response to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, the party employed liberal policies and programs with the New Deal coalition to combat financial crises and emergency bank closings, with policies continuing into World War II. The Party kept the White House after Roosevelt's death in April 1945, reelecting former Vice President Harry S. Truman in 1948. During this period, the Republican Party only successfully elected one president (Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956) and was the minority in Congress all but twice (the exceptions being 1946 and 1952). Powerful committee chairmanships were awarded automatically on the basis of seniority, which gave power especially to long-serving Southerners. Important Democratic leaders during this time included Presidents John F. Kennedy (1961–1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–1969). Republican Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968 and 1972, leading to the end of the New Deal era.
Democrats have won six out of the last twelve presidential elections, winning in the presidential elections of 1976 (with 39th President Jimmy Carter, (1977–1981), 1992> and (with 42nd President Bill Clinton, 1993–2001), 2008 and (with 44th President Barack Obama, 2009–2017), and 2020 (with 46th President Joe Biden, 2021–present). Democrats have also won the popular vote in and 2016, but lost the Electoral College in both elections (with candidates Al Gore and illary Clinton, respectively). These were two of the four presidential elections in which Democrats won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, the others being the presidential elections in 1876 and 1888.