Two major parties, Democratic and Republican, have dominated national, state, and local politics since 1860. These parties are made up of clusters of small autonomous local groups primarily concerned with local politics and the election of local candidates to office. Within each party, such groups frequently differ drastically in policies and beliefs on many issues, but once every four years, they successfully bury their differences and rally around a candidate for the presidency. Minority parties have been formed at various periods in US political history, but most have generally allied with one of the two major parties, and none has achieved sustained national prominence. The most successful minority party in recent decades—that of Texas billionaire Ross Perot in 1992—was little more than a protest vote. Various extreme groups on the right and left, including a small US Communist Party, have had little political significance on a national scale; in 1980, the Libertarian Party became the first minor party since 1916 to appear on the ballot in all 50 states. The Green Party increased its showing in the 2000 election, with presidential candidate Ralph Nader winning 2.7% of the vote. Independent candidates have won state and local office, but no candidate has won the presidency without major party backing.
Traditionally, the Republican Party is more solicitous of business interests and gets greater support from business than does the Democratic Party. A majority of blue-collar workers, by contrast, have generally supported the Democratic Party, which favors more lenient labor laws, particularly as they affect labor unions; the Republican Party often (though not always) supports legislation that restricts the power of labor unions. Republicans favor the enhancement of the private sector of the economy, while Democrats generally urge the cause of greater government participation and regulatory authority, especially at the federal level.
Within both parties there are sharp differences on a great many issues; for example, northeastern Democrats in the past almost uniformly favored strong federal civil rights legislation, which was anathema to the Deep South; eastern Republicans in foreign policy are internationalist-minded, while midwesterners of the same party constituted from 1910 through 1940 the hard core of isolationist sentiment in the country. More recently, "conservative" headings have been adopted by members of both parties who emphasize decentralized government power, strengthened private enterprise, and a strong US military posture overseas, while the designation "liberal" has been applied to those favoring an increased federal government role in economic and social affairs, disengagement from foreign military commitments, and the intensive pursuit of nuclear-arms reduction.
President Nixon's resignation and the accompanying scandal surrounding the Republican Party hierarchy had a telling, if predictable, effect on party morale, as indicated by Republican losses in the 1974 and 1976 elections. The latent consequences of the Vietnam and Watergate years appeared to take their toll on both parties, however, in growing apathy toward politics and mistrust of politicians among the electorate. As of 1992, Democrats enjoyed a large advantage over Republicans in voter registration, held both houses of congress, had a majority of state governorships, and controlled most state legislative bodies. Ronald Reagan's successful 1980 presidential bid cut into traditional Democratic strongholds throughout the United States, as Republicans won control of the US Senate and eroded state and local Democratic majorities. On the strength of an economic recovery, President Reagan won reelection in November 1984, carrying 49 of 50 states (with a combined total of 525 electoral votes) and 58.8% of the popular vote; the Republicans retained control of the Senate, but the Democrats held on to the House. Benefiting from a six-year expansion of the economy, Republican George Bush won 54% of the vote in 1988. As Reagan had, Bush successfully penetrated traditionally Democratic regions. He carried every state in the South as well as the industrial states of the North.
Bush's approval rating reached a high of 91% in March of 1991 in the wake of the Persian Gulf War. By July of 1992, however, that rating had plummeted to 25%, in part because Bush appeared to be disengaged from domestic issues, particularly the 1991 recession. Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas and twenty years younger than Bush, presented himself to the electorate as a "New Democrat." He took more moderate positions than traditional New Deal Democrats, including calling for a middle-class tax cut, welfare reform, national service, and such traditionally Republican goals as getting tough on crime. The presidential race took on an unpredictable dimension with the entrance of Independent Ross Perot, a Texas billionaire. Perot, who attacked the budget deficit and called for shared sacrifice, withdrew from the race in July and then re-entered it in October. Clinton won the election with 43% of the vote, Bush received 38%, and Perot captured 18%, more than any third-party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. In 1996 Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt to be elected to a second term, with 49% of the popular vote to 41% for Republican Bob Dole, and 8% for Ross Perot, who once again ran as an Independent. Republicans retained control of the House and Senate.
Aided by a growing climate of conservatism on moral issues and popular discontent with the pace of economic recovery from the recent recession, the Republicans accomplished an historic upset in the 1994 midterm elections, gaining control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1952. They gained 52 seats in the House, for a majority of 230–204, and 8 seats in the Senate, for a majority that came to 53–47 once Democrat Richard Shelby of Alabama changed parties shortly after the election. The Republicans also increased their power at the state level, winning 11 governorships, for a national total of 30. The number of state legislatures under Republican control increased from 8 to 19, with 18 controlled by the Democrats and 12 under split control. After the 1998 election, the Republican majority had eroded slightly in the House, with the 106th Congress including 223 Republicans, 210 Democrats, and 2 Independents; the Senate included 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats.
The 1984 election marked a turning point for women in national politics. Geraldine A. Ferraro, a Democrat, became the first female vice presidential nominee of a major US political party; no woman has ever captured a major-party presidential nomination. As of 2000, 9 women served in the US Senate, and 58 women held seats in the US House of Representatives.
The 1984 presidential candidacy of Jesse L. Jackson, election, the first black ever to win a plurality in a statewide presidential preference primary, likewise marked the emergence of African Americans as a political force, especially within the Democratic Party. In 1992 an African American woman, Democrat Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, won election to the Senate, becoming the first black senator; Moseley Braun lost her reelection bid in 1998. There were 39 blacks and 17 Hispanics in the House as of 2000.
The candidates in the 2000 presidential were Republican George W. Bush, son of former president George Herbert Walker Bush; his vice presidential running mate was Dick Cheney. The Democratic candidate was Vice President Al Gore, Jr. (Clinton administration 1992–2000). Gore chose Joseph Lieberman, senator from Connecticut, as his running mate. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, became the first Jew to run for national office. Following the contested presidential election of 2000, George W. Bush emerged as president following a ruling by the US Supreme Court. Gore won the popular vote, with 48.4%, to 47.9% for Bush, but Bush won the electoral college vote, 271–266, with one blank vote in the electoral college cast.
Sectional and demographic shifts in party strength were evident in the 2000 election, with the Northeast, parts of the Midwest, and and the Pacific states voting Democratic, and the South, West, and rural communities voting Republican.
Following the November 2002 mid-term elections, Republicans held 229 of 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and there were 205 Democrats and 1 independent in the House. The Republicans held an extremely thin margin in the Senate, of 51 seats, to the Democrats' 48. There was one independent in the Senate, former Republican Jim Jeffords. Following the election, Nancy Pelosi became the Democratic Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, the first woman to head either party in Congress. As a result of the 2002 election, there were 60 women, 37 African Americans, and 22 Hispanics in the House of Representatives, and 14 women in the Senate. There were no African American or Hispanic senators following the 2002 election.