Political Parties in the United States

Modern Republican and Democratic Parties

Geographical and Demographic Strengths

Democrats have strong support in urban areas and along the coasts, except in the southeast. Republicans have strong support in the South, the interior, and more rural areas. Democrats are strong among minorities and women, while Republicans have more support among whites, men, evangelical Christians, and those with the highest incomes.

The Democratic and Republican parties typically are supported by very different constituencies, or groups. Although the Democrats dominated in the South for most of the period after the Civil War through the 1970s, their support in the region has fallen dramatically since then. The Democrats since the 1990s have typically been strong in the middle Atlantic and New England states, in the states along the west coast, and in urban areas across the country. The Republicans generally have dominated since the 1980s in the South, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountain states from Montana to Utah. They are also stronger in rural areas and small towns.

The two parties appeal to different groups of voters. Women, particularly unmarried women, are more likely to favor Democrats, as are voters with more education. African Americans are strongly Democratic; Latino voters often favor Democrats, although Cuban Americans, concentrated particularly in Florida, historically have tended to support the Republican Party. Asian Americans and Jewish Americans tend to vote Democratic, though many members of these groups support Republicans. Evangelical Christians have formed an important core of the Republican Party since the 1980s. White voters, particularly white males, have become strong Republican supporters since the 1980s. Republicans have also attracted working class voters who were long supporters of Democratic candidates, although union members still tend to favor Democrats. Business owners tend to favor Republicans.

Popular Vote for Presidential Candidates by Group, 2000–2012

Group Vote for Democrat Vote for Republican
Males 46–51% 48–54%
Females 53–57% 43–47%
White Americans 42–46% 54–58%
African Americans 89–100% 0–11%
Latinos 59–73% 27–41%
High school diploma 50–59% 41–50%
College and postgraduate degree 50–53% 47–50%
Income: bottom 16% 58–68% 32–42%
Income: middle 33% 50–56% 44–50%
Income: top 5% 37–38% 53–73%
Union household 58–64% 36–42%
Non-union household 46–54% 46–54%
South 45–51% 49–57%
Outside the South 50–62% 38–50%

Based on data from The American National Election Studies

Generalizations about regional and group party affiliation have to be read cautiously. Voting patterns can shift over time—the "solid South" was strongly Democratic for more than a century after the Civil War, after which white voters there began shifting to the Republican Party. West Virginia was strongly Democratic for decades but became strongly Republican in presidential elections in the 21st century. New Hampshire, solidly Republican for most of the 20th century, voted for the Democratic presidential candidates in six of seven elections from 1992 to 2016.

Political analysts speak of Republican states as "red states" and Democratic states as "blue states," reflecting the colors used by the media for electoral maps. Some states are "purple," meaning that they are more competitive between the two parties. Voters there might favor candidates from one party for state office but tend to vote for members of the other party for national office. Or they can be volatile, more likely to shift between parties from one election to the next. Party strength can also vary within a state. Pennsylvania, for instance, is strongly Democratic in the major cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and in other urban areas. More rural parts of the state tend to vote Republican. The outcome of any given election in such states depends on a particular candidate's ability to appeal or gain support in areas that traditionally favor the other party. Winning independent voters is key as well.

Party Strength in Presidential Elections, 2000-16

Many states are safely Democratic or Republican in presidential elections, but others swing back and forth between the two parties.

How the Two Major Parties Differ

While there are differences in issue positions within each party, Republicans favor a smaller role for government in general and for the federal government in particular. Democrats favor a larger government role and tend to favor federal over state power.

Both of the major parties include members with a range of positions on major policy issues. Still, the two ranges tend to cluster on different sides of the political ideological spectrum. Generally speaking, Republicans favor more conservative positions, calling for a smaller government role in the economy and social welfare programs. Democrats generally favor more liberal positions, urging a greater role for government in the economy and society.

The parties' various policy positions are not etched in stone and can change over time. For example, historically Republicans have supported free trade, but in the early 21st century many Republican voters moved away from that position. Likewise, Democrats were once the party of segregation in the South but have become more closely aligned with policies supporting the civil rights of African Americans and other minority groups.

In broad policy areas, the two parties differ in the following ways:

  • Governmental power: In general, Republicans believe that the national government should be less involved in citizens' lives and that many policy decisions should be left up to the states so that policy better reflects the unique needs and political position of the state's people. Democrats tend to favor more federal government involvement in American life to ensure consistent policies across the country. This debate affects policy making in any number of areas, from health care to gun control to education spending and standards.
  • Economic policy: Because Republicans generally believe that less government is better, they think that taxes should be low for all taxpayers. They also favor low taxes on corporations, believing this will encourage them to invest in growth and innovation, which will, in turn, help the economy grow and provide for more jobs and higher wages. Democrats favor higher and progressive taxes on the wealthy and on corporations as an attempt to put the tax burden on those they think can more easily afford it. Republicans support a business-friendly government with minimal government regulation. Democrats favor government regulation of the economy in cases involving safety, health, and individual rights. Both parties have generally supported free trade since the second half of the 20th century, though critics on both the Democratic left and the Republican right have criticized free trade as being unfair to American companies and workers. Many Republicans shifted in the 2010s to favor policies aimed at protecting American industries from foreign competition through tariffs and other measures.
  • Foreign policy: Republicans favor a strong foreign policy emphasizing national interests, and many accept unilateral American action abroad. Democrats tend to be more internationalist in outlook, urging that the United States join with allies in collective diplomacy.
  • Domestic policy: Republicans oppose a government-funded health care for all, arguing that such an approach will inflate costs, diminish the quality of care, and reduce patients' freedom of choice. Democrats argue that a greater governmental role in the health insurance market can ensure greater access to high-quality health care for all people, regardless of income. On immigration, Democrats encourage exploring ways to open a path to citizenship for at least some of the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Republicans endorse a far stricter approach, generally opposing any permanent legal status for immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally. While both parties support stronger border security, Republicans are typically in favor of stronger measures than Democrats. A significant share of Republicans favor less environmental regulation while Democrats tend to support more and stronger environmental regulations.
  • Social issues: Abortion and LGBTQ rights have been the focus of fairly strong partisan differences. Democrats generally support the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), which legalized abortion in a majority of cases. Republicans favor limits on abortion rights or, for many, laws banning abortions. Republicans also generally opposed the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges [2015]), while Democrats approved of the decision.