What is a Republican? And a Democrat?

The English Language: 100 FAQ

There are only two major political parties in the US; the Republicans & the Democrats. A representative from one or other party has won every presidential election since 1852. The above presentation briefly describes the key differences between them.

Why the names Republican and Democrat?

This gets very confusing! 

The Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton  was opposed by Thomas Jefferson who formed an opposition party in 1792. Jefferson's  party developed into the Democratic-Republican Party (1798) and was the forerunner of the modern Democratic Party.

The  modern Republican Party was founded in the 1850s and  key features included opposition to slavery and a support base in the northern states. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, while the pro-slavery southern states were largely Democrat.

Where do they stand today?  
Broadly speaking, the Democratic Party is left-of-center and the Republican Party right-of-center As the 2000 Presidential Election spectacularly proved, the American electorate is divided into these two camps. On one side are the Democrat-voting blue states, located primarily on the coasts (California and New York, for example) and in the north-east. They are opposed by the Republican red states of the so-called fly-over heartland and the south.
Registered voters in 2004
The core voters of a party are known as the base. On the Democrat side the base is largely consists of trade unionists and various interest groups defined by race or social outlook. For red state Republicans the unifying issues tend to be pro-life (anti abortion), anti gun control and pro small government. Democrats often describe themselves as progressives and Republicans as values voters.

Is this election cycle different?

The emergence of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders does suggest that new factors are emerging. Trump is a populist rather than a traditional conservative - he is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and economically protectionist. Sanders is openly socialist - previously considered electoral poison - but like Trump taps into grassroots anger against 'the establishment' in both parties.

Why do presidential candidates 'pivot'?

In the primary, or presidential candidate selection process, candidates appeal to base by emphasising their ideological convictions. Traditionally, candidates then 'pivot to the centre' for the general election in order to appeal to the broader electorate.
How are elections decided?
By what happens to a third group of independent voters in swing (or purple) states like Oregon, New Mexico or Ohio. Independents historically have sided with the winning party. These went with Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008 and to a lesser extent in 2012. In 2014 they have swung back to the Republicans.
What do independents want? 
This is the key question for electoral strategists. Surveys consistently show that the electorate is more ‘conservative’ than ‘liberal’ or left leaning. That is why there are ‘blue-dog Democrats’ representing many purple districts. Blue dogs define themselves as being more fiscally conservative than the majority of their party and are usually against gun control and – to a lesser extent – abortion.
Republicans also field candidates who are seen as more socially liberal where this better suits the electorate. Examples include Charlie Baker – who became the governor of the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts in November 2014 or Rudy Giuliani the pro-choice (abortion) former Mayor of New York.