In 1960, John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated the Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon, in the presidential race. Upon Kennedy's assassination (1963), Lyndon B. Johnson became president and won a landslide victory in 1964 against the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. His administration was marked by much social welfare and civil-rights legislation but the conduct of the Vietnam War split the party, and when combined with the strong third-party showing of the conservative Southern Democrat George C. Wallace, led to the defeat of Hubert H. Humphrey by Richard Nixon in 1968.
The Democratic party of the 1970s and 80s was an uneasy alliance among labor, urban, and ethnic minority groups, intellectuals and middle-class reformers, and increasingly disaffected Southern Democrats. In 1972 the balance in the party was further upset with the nomination of George McGovern, whose defense and social welfare views proved unacceptable to many labor unions and other groups, while the South continued to swing its support to national Republican candidates. Although the Democrats retained their solid majorities in Congress (except for the Senate in 1980, 1982, and 1984), the victorious national coalition built by Nixon was sustained by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and by George H. W. Bush in 1988. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat from Georgia, may have won in 1976 because of the political scandals that emerged during the second Nixon administration and by temporarily recalling Southern Democratic voters to the fold.
The Democratic victory of Bill Clinton in 1992 was thought by some to have marked the emergence of a new Democratic coalition of labor, women, minorities, moderates, "Reagan Democrats," and the South. In 1994, however, voters expressed their anti-Washington and anti-incumbent sentiments by delivering Republican victories nationwide, with a particularly strong showing in the South, resulting in the loss for the Democrats of their majorities in both houses of Congress as well as the loss of a number of governorships. Clinton's conflicts with the Republican House helped restore much of the stature he had lost in 1994, and with a generally healthy national economy in 1996 he handily defeated Republican Bob Dole and Reform party candidate Ross Perot. Other incumbents, however, also benefited from the voters' general contentment, and Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. This situation was largely unchanged by the 1998 congressional elections despite the Lewinsky scandal, which Democrats feared would benefit Republicans.
In the 2000 elections, the party's presidential nominee, Al Gore, lost to Republican George W. Bush despite having won a plurality of the popular vote. Gore's candidacy was hurt by the campaign of Green party candidate Ralph Nader, and the extremely narrow loss of Florida's electoral votes, which Gore unsuccessfully challenged in the courts. Despite Gore's electoral-college loss, the party's fortunes clearly seemed to have improved since the Reagan years, and the Democrats made gains in Congress, subsequently (June, 2001) controlling the Senate due to a Republican member's defection. The Nov., 2002, elections, however, returned control of both houses of Congress to the Republicans. Senator John Kerry easily won the party's 2004 presidential nomination, but he was soundly defeated in the general election by President Bush. The party also saw the Republicans further solidify their majorities in Congress.
The party's national fortunes reversed with the 2006 congressional elections, in which voter discontent with political scandals, the war in Iraq, and other issues resulted in significant Democratic advances, giving the party control of both houses of Congress. Democrats also made gains in the states, winning control of additional governorships and state legislatures. Some of the gains, however, particularly in the U.S. Senate, were due to narrow victories.
In 2008, aided by the unpopularity of the Bush presidency and a national economic crisis, Democrat Barack Obama defeated Republican John McCain to become the first African American to win the nation's highest office. Obama's win represented the Democrat's biggest presidential victory since Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, and the party generally added to its gains of 2006, especially in the U.S. Congress. Those gains were in large part reversed in 2010, when an uncertain, lackluster recovery contributed to the Republican party's capturing the U.S. House of Representatives as well as winning many governorships and additional U.S. Senate seats. In 2012, despite an economic recovery that continued to be only gradual, Obama was reelected, defeating Republican Mitt Romney; the balance of power in the Congress remained largely the same.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.