History of the Democratic and Republican parties
The Democratic Party traces its origins to the anti-federalist factions around the time of America’s independence from British rule. These factions were organized into the Democrat – Republican party by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other influential opponents of the Federalists in 1792.
The Republican party is the younger of the two parties. Founded in 1854 by anti-slavery expansion activists and modernizers, the Republican Party rose to prominence with the election of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president. The party presided over the American Civil War and Reconstruction and was harried by internal factions and scandals towards the end of the 19th century.
Since the division of the Republican Party in the election of 1912, the Democratic party has consistently positioned itself to the left of the Republican Party in economic as well as social matters. The economically left-leaning activist philosophy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which has strongly influenced American liberalism, has shaped much of the party's economic agenda since 1932. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition usually controlled the national government until 1964.
The Republican Party today supports a pro-business platform, with foundations in economic libertarianism, and fiscal and social conservatism.
Differences in Philosophy
Republican philosophy leans more towards individual freedoms, rights and responsibilities. In contrast, Democrats attach greater importance to equality and social/community responsibility.
While there may be several differences in opinion between individual Democrats and Republicans on certain issues, what follows is a generalization of their stand on several of these issues.
Role of Government
One of the fundamental differences between Democratic and Republican party ideals is around the role of government. Democrats tend to favor a more active role for government in society and believe that such involvement can improve the quality of people’s lives and help achieve the larger goals of opportunity and equality. On the other hand, Republicans tend to favor a small government — both in terms of the number of people employed by the government and in terms of the roles and responsibilities of government in society. They see "big government" as wasteful and an obstacle to getting things done. Their approach is Darwinian capitalism in that strong businesses should survive in a free market rather than the government influencing—through regulation—who wins or loses in business.
For example, Democrats tend to favor environmental regulations and anti-discrimination laws for employment. Republicans tend to consider such regulations harmful to business and job growth because most laws have unintended consequences. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a government agency that many Republican presidential candidates love to deride as an example of "useless" government agencies that they would shut down.
Another example is the food stamps program. Republicans in Congress were demanding cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP), while Democrats wanted to expand this program. Democrats argued that with the unemployment rate high, many families needed the assistance provided by the program. Republicans argued that there was a lot of fraud in the program, which is wasting taxpayer dollars. Republicans also favor more individual responsibility, so they would like to institute rules that force beneficiaries of welfare programs to take more personal responsibility through measures like mandatory drug testing, and looking for a job.
Democratic vs Republican stand on controversial issues
The Democrats and Republicans have varying ideas on many hot button issues, some of which are listed below. These are broadly generalized opinions; it must be noted that there are many politicians in each party who have different and more nuanced positions on these issues.
Republicans: Prefer increasing military spending and have a more hard line stance against countries like Iran, with a higher tendency to deploy the military option.
Democrats: Prefer lower increases in military spending and are comparatively more reluctant to using military force against countries like Iran, Syria and Libya.
Gun control laws
Democrats favor more gun control laws e.g. oppose the right to carry concealed weapons in public places. Republicans oppose gun control laws and are strong supporters of the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) as well as the right to carry concealed weapons.
Democrats support abortion rights and keeping elective abortions legal. Republicans believe abortions should not be legal and that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Some Republicans go so far as to oppose the contraception mandate i.e. requiring employer-paid health insurance plans to cover contraception.
A related point of divergence is embryonic stem cell research - Democrats support it while Republicans do not.
Democrats tend to favor equal rights for gay and lesbian couples e.g. the right to get married and adopt children. Republicans believe that marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman so they do not support gay marriage, nor allowing gay couples to adopt children.
Democrats are also more supportive of rights for transgender people; for example, within about a month of taking office, Republican President Donald Trump rescinded protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.
Now that gay marriage is legal nationwide, the battleground has shifted to related issues like transgender rights and anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people. For example, Democrats favor laws barring businesses from refusing to serve gay customers.
The majority opinion in America about the death penalty is that it should be legal. However, many Democrats are opposed to it and the 2016 Democratic Party platform called for abolishing the death penalty.
Democrats support progressive taxes. A progressive tax system is one where high-income individuals pay taxes at a higher rate. This is the how federal income tax brackets are currently set up. For example, the first $10,000 in income is taxed at 10% but marginal income over $420,000 is taxed at 39.6%.
Republicans support tax cuts for everyone (rich and poor alike). They believe that a smaller government would need less revenue from taxes to sustain itself. Some Republicans are proponents of a "flat tax" where all people pay the same percentage of their income in taxes regardless of income level. They consider higher tax rates on the rich a form of class warfare.
Related: A comparison of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton's Tax Plans
Democrats favor increase in the minimum wage to help workers. Republicans oppose raising the minimum wage because it hurts businesses.
U.S. foreign policy has traditionally been relatively consistent between Democratic and Republican administrations. Key allies have always been other Western powers like the UK, France. Allies in the middle east were—and continue to remain—countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Nevertheless, some differences can be seen based on the Obama administration's handling of relations with certain countries. For example, Israel and the U.S. have always been strong allies. But relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been tense. A major contributor to this tension has been the Obama administration's Iran policy. The U.S. tightened sanctions on Iran in Obama's first term, but negotiated a deal in the second term that allowed international inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities. The U.S. and Iran also found common ground against the threat from ISIS. This rapprochement has irked Iran's traditional rival Israel, even though for all practical purposes Israel and the U.S. remain staunch allies. Republicans in Congress opposed the Iran deal and the easing of sanctions against Iran. They also invited Netanyahu to deliver a speech against the deal.
Another country where the Democratic Obama administration reversed decades of U.S. policy is Cuba. Republican Rand Paul supported the unfreezing of relations with Cuba but his opinion is not shared by a majority of Republicans.. Republicans like presidential contenders Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have publicly opposed the normalization of relations with Cuba. 
Politicians from both parties are often heard saying that "The immigration system in this country is broken." However, the political divide has been too wide to let any bipartisan legislation pass to "fix" the system with "comprehensive immigration reform."
In general the Democratic Party is considered more sympathetic to the immigrant cause. There is widespread support among Democrats for the DREAM Act which grants conditional residency (and permanent residency upon meeting further qualifications) to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. when they were minors. The bill never passed but the (Democratic) Obama administration did issue some protections for certain qualified undocumented immigrants.
Both Democratic and Republican administrations have used and favored deportations. More undocumented immigrants were deported under President Obama than any president before him. Deportations have continued, if not accelerated, under President Trump.
Republicans favor legal immigration to be "merit-based" or "point-based". Such systems are used by countries like Canada and Australia to allow lawful entry visas to individuals with in-demand skills who can contribute to the economy. The flip side of such a system is that not enough visas may be available for family-based immigration. A merit-based system is also the opposite of the "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." philosophy.
Abraham Lincoln belonged to the Republican Party, so the roots of the party lie in individual freedom and the abolition of slavery. Indeed, 82% of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 while only 69% of Democrats did. The Southern wing of the Democratic party was vehemently opposed to civil rights legislation.
However, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there was a sort of role reversal. Todd Purdum, author of An Idea Whose Time Has Come, a book about the legislative maneuvering behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act, says this in an interview with NPR:
SIEGEL: How much of the Republican Party in Congress supported the civil rights bill as it still was? And how many voted for cloture to break the filibuster? PURDUM: Well, the final vote in the Senate for the bill was 73 to 27, with 27 out of 33 Republican votes. So in proportional terms, the Republicans supported this bill much more than the Democrats did in both houses. SIEGEL: A few weeks after Lyndon Johnson signed that bill into law, as we heard at the beginning, the Republicans go and they nominate Barry Goldwater for president, a Republican who had voted against civil rights. And their legacy is jettisoned at that moment. PURDUM: In some important way that was the beginning of changing the Republican Party from the party of Lincoln into the party of white backlash which is, frankly, reputation that in the South particularly endures to this day, and has hurt the Republican Party as a national brand in presidential elections.
Republicans believe that Purdum's point of view is misleading because Goldwater supported previous attempts at passing a Civil Rights act, and desegregation, but did not like the 1964 Act because he felt it infringed on states' rights.
In any case, the present dynamic is that minorities like Hispanics and African Americans and are much more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. However, there are prominent African American Republicans like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, Michael Steele and Alan West, as well as Hispanics like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Alberto Gonzales and Brian Sandoval.
Voter ID laws
Civil liberties groups like the ACLU criticize the GOP for pushing for voter ID laws — Republicans believe these laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud while Democrats claim that voter fraud is virtually non-existent and that these laws disenfranchise black and Hispanic voters who tend to be poorer and unable to obtain ID cards.
Black Lives Matter
The Black Lives Matter movement is a mostly Democratic priority while Republicans have expressed more concern about the shootings of police officers. The 2016 Republican convention featured people killed at the hands of undocumented immigrants, as well as a sheriff proclaiming "blue lives matter." The Democratic convention, on the other hand, provided a forum for testimonials from the mothers of black men and women killed in confrontations with police.
Logos of the Democratic and Republican parties
Red states and Blue states list
Due to the TV coverage during some of the presidential elections in the past, the color Red has become associated with the Republicans (as in Red states – the states where the Republican presidential nominee wins) and Blue is associated with the Democrats.
The Democratic Party, once dominant in the Southeastern United States, is now strongest in the Northeast (Mid-Atlantic and New England), Great Lakes Region, as well as along the Pacific Coast (especially Coastal California), including Hawaii. The Democrats are also strongest in major cities. Recently, Democratic candidates have been faring better in some southern states, such as Virginia, Arkansas, and Florida, and in the Rocky Mountain states, especially Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico.
Since 1980, geographically the Republican "base" ("red states") is strongest in the South and West, and weakest in the Northeast and the Pacific Coast. The Republican Party's strongest focus of political influence lies in the Great Plains states, particularly Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, and in the western states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah.
Red states outnumber blue states
In February 2016, Gallup reported that for the first time since Gallup started tracking, red states now outnumber blue states.
In 2008, 35 states leaned Democratic and this number is down to only 14 now. In the same time, the number of Republican leaning states rose from 5 to 20. Gallup determined 16 states to be competitive, i.e., they leaned toward neither party. Wyoming, Idaho and Utah were the most Republican states, while states that leaned the most Democratic were Vermont, Hawaii and Rhode Island.
Famous Republican vs Democratic Presidents
Republicans have controlled the White House for 28 of the last 43 years since Richard Nixon became president. Famous Democrat Presidents have been Franklin Roosevelt, who pioneered the New Deal in America and stood for 4 terms, John F. Kennedy, who presided over the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, and was assassinated in Office; Bill Clinton, who was impeached by the House of Representatives; and Nobel Peace Prize winners Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter.
Famous Republican Presidents include Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery; Teddy Roosevelt, known for the Panama Canal; Ronald Reagan, credited for ending the Cold War with Gorbachev; and the two Bush family Presidents of recent times. Republican President Richard Nixon was forced to resign over the Watergate scandal.
To compare the two parties' presidential candidates in the 2016 elections, see Donald Trump vs Hillary Clinton.
Control of the White House
This graphic shows which party controlled the White House since 1901. You can find the list of Presidents on Wikipedia.
Republican vs Democratic Demographics
Interesting data about how support for each party broke down by race, geography and the urban-rural divide during the 2018 mid-term elections are presented in charts here.
The Pew Research Group, among others, regularly surveys American citizens to determine party affiliation or support for various demographic groups. Some of their latest results are below.
Partisan Advantages by Age
In general, support for the Democratic party is stronger among younger voters. As the demographic gets older, support for the Republican party rises.
In general, women lean Democratic while support among men is roughly evenly split between the two parties.
Support for parties can also vary significantly by ethnicity and race, with African-Americans and Hispanics. For example, in the 2012 presidential election, Republican Mitt Romney garnered only 6% of the black vote; and in 2008 John McCain got only 4%.
By Level of Education
Support for the two parties also varies by level of education; support for the Democratic party is stronger among college graduates and also among people who have a high school diploma or less.
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