Democratic Party history from the year you were born

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January 13, 2021

Democratic Party history from the year you were born

Political figures, wars, protests, and scandals have all had a hand in shaping the Democratic Party's platforms. 

Stacker took a look at important developments in the party from 1931 until today through historical records, newspaper accounts, and government archives. From Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected in 1932, to Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump in 2020, a picture of the party emerges, sometimes changing to meet Americans’ needs and demands, other times reacting to events outside of the United States, wars, and revolutions.

Which presidents, vice presidents, governors, and mayors broke barriers in their careers? Who were the party favorites? And who were the agitators demanding reform?

In his January 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced four core freedoms that the United States needed to protect against the Axis powers: the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In the depths of the Great Depression, he created a New Deal for Americans, a series of work projects, regulations, and programs meant to lift the country out of the economic morass it was experiencing. His Democratic successors worked to try to ensure voting rights for all Americans, to vanquish poverty, and to provide health care and education for all.

The party has been wrenched in new directions, including when protests broke against the Vietnam War and against racial injustice. Other times, Democrats moved toward protecting the environment and passing gun control.

President-elect Joe Biden faces challenges even more urgent, as he tries to move the country past the angry divisiveness of the past four years, the coronavirus pandemic, and the economic strains it has caused.

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Chicago History Museum // Getty Images

1931: Democrats take control of Chicago

Anton Joseph Cermak beat Republican incumbent William Hale Thompson to become Chicago’s 44th mayor, beginning an unbroken line of Democratic mayors that lasts until today. Mayor Cermak, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, was shot to death in Miami in 1933 by a man trying to kill President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As Mayor Cermak was rushed to the hospital in President Roosevelt’s car, he said, “I am glad it was me instead of you.”

[Pictured: Campaign trucks for Anton Cermak are visible in Chicago's 22nd Ward in 1931.]

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FDR Presidential Library & Museum // Wikimedia Commons

1932: Roosevelt elected president

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to his first of four terms as the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. Roosevelt implemented his New Deal over the first 100 days of his administration, with financial reforms, the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority, relief for Americans without work, and protection for family farms and businesses. He brought renewed confidence to the country with his fireside chats on the radio, but earned the ire of some Republicans opposed to controls on business.

[Pictured: Franklin D. Roosevelt with Anna Roosevelt Halsted and Eleanor Roosevelt on Oct. 24, 1932.]

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U.S. National Archives // Wikimedia Commons

1933: Congress passes Emergency Banking Act

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first step to stabilize the country’s economy came immediately after his inauguration with the Emergency Banking Act. He shut down the banks with a four-day holiday and sent the legislation, prepared by the Treasury Department under President Herbert Hoover’s administration, to Congress. Passed the same day, it enabled the country’s Federal Reserve Banks to issue additional currency so that Americans could feel confident that when the banks reopened, they would not fail.

[Pictured: President Roosevelt Broadcasting his first fireside chat regarding the banking crisis on March 12, 1933.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1934: Roosevelt creates the Securities Exchange Commission

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Securities Exchange Commission through the Securities Exchange Act. It licensed stock exchanges and decided the legality of speculative market actions. In addition, the Corporate Bankruptcy Act allowed corporations to reorganize if they faced bankruptcy and the Federal Farm Bankruptcy Act implemented a moratorium on farm mortgage foreclosures. The farm act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but upheld after it was amended.

[Pictured: The members of the new Securities and Exchange Commission in their first meeting on July 2, 1934.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1935: Roosevelt enacts Social Security

The historic Social Security Act was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Fourteen months earlier, he had called for a program that would protect older Americans “against the hazards and vicissitudes of life.” Some Republican lawmakers warned it would enslave workers and threaten American institutions. The Work Progress Administration provided millions with jobs constructing roads and public buildings.

[Pictured: President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Bill in the White House.]


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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

1936: Roosevelt wins second term

By the time that President Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for his second term, he was enormously popular. President Roosevelt won 60.8% of the popular vote to 36.5% for his Republican opponent Kansas Gov. Alf Landon. He took every state but Maine and Vermont, and got 523 electoral votes. That was 98.49% of the electoral vote, the most dramatic win since 1820.

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Everett Collection // Shutterstock

1937: FDR tries to pack the Supreme Court

Using the ages of some on the bench as his rationale, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to expand the U.S. Supreme Court by as many as six justices after the court overturned some of the New Deal laws. In 1936, for example, the court ruled 5-4 against a New York law for a minimum wage for women and child workers, one of a number of rulings unpopular in both parties. The court-packing plan failed, but after one justice began switching his votes, Roosevelt’s New Deal was safe.

[Pictured: A Works Progress Administration protest march in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 16, 1937.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1938: Democrats lose in midterm elections

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was facing opposition from conservative Democrats within his own party. With war threatening in Europe and the country still in a depression, Democrats lost a large number of congressional seats to Republicans in the midterm elections of 1938. Republicans gained 71 seats in the House of Representatives and eight in the Senate.

[Pictured: President D. Roosevelt as he spoke during a radio broadcast from his Hyde Park home on the night of Nov. 4, 1938.]

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Harris & Ewing // Library of Congress

1939: Roosevelt signs Neutrality Act

With little support for war in the country, President Franklin D. Roosevelt positions the United States as neutral as France and Britain declare war on Germany, and Germany and the USSR divide Poland between them. He also, however, allows the sale of arms to the countries at war, a way for the United States to help France and Britain.

[Pictured: House and Senate conferees agree on the final draft of the neutrality bill in Washington D.C., on Nov. 3, 1939.]

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FDR Presidential Library & Museum // Wikimedia Commons

1940: Roosevelt wins third term

President Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican lawyer Wendell Willkie to win a third term, becoming the only president to serve more than two. The UPI newswire described Roosevelt’s win in this way: “The New Deal had broken through Republican defenses in New England and in the great industrial states of the middle east. The solid south held solid and the far west went to Roosevelt although Oregon was fighting ground. The middle west proved a Willkie stronghold.”

[Pictured: President Franklin D. Roosevelt takes the Oath of Office from Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes at his third inauguration on Jan. 20, 1941.]


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Bettmann // Getty Images

1941: ‘A date which will live in infamy’

Japan bombed the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, and declared war on the United States. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress, asked for a declaration of war against Japan and described it as, “a date which will live in infamy.” Congress approved the declaration of war, and within days, Germany and Italy had declared war on the United States, which was now embroiled in World War II.

[Pictured: President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Dec. 8, 1941, as he asks Congress to declare a state of war against Japan.]

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Dorothea Lange // U.S. National Archives

1942: Roosevelt authorizes internment camps

President Roosevelt authorizes internment camps for Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. Approximately 100,000 people were forced to leave their homes for camps in Arkansas, Colorado, and Utah. The policy is now considered one of the most shameful in American history.

[Pictured: Exclusion Order posted in San Francisco on April 11, 1942.]

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Imperial War Museum // Wikimedia Commons

1943: FDR, Stalin, Churchill meet

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill first met in Tehran, Iran, from late November until Dec. 1. The men agreed on the Allied invasion of Europe, Premier Stalin promised to join the fight against Japan, and they discussed plans for after the war. The leaders came to be called “The Big Three.”

[Pictured: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on the veranda of the Soviet Legation in Tehran, during the first "Big Three" conference.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1944: Roosevelt signs G.I. Bill

The G.I. Bill of Rights was meant to help World War II service members rejoin society. Formally the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the bill offered low-cost mortgages, business loans, tuition to attend college, and an unemployment benefit of $20 a week. Congressional opposition to the unemployment benefit nearly killed the bill. Millions attended colleges and universities, bought houses, and relatively few collected the unemployment check.

[Pictured: The USS Washington arrives in the New York Harbor on June 11, 1945.]

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Abbie Rowe/NARA // Wikimedia Commons

1945: Truman approves atomic bombing of Japan

Harry S. Truman, who was thrust into the presidency when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April, approved the first and only use of atomic weapons, authorizing dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and on Nagasaki on Aug. 9. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, and President Truman said he never regretted his decision. An estimated 225,000 people were killed, crushed in buildings, or from burns or radiation poisoning.

[Pictured: President Truman announces Japan's surrender at the White House, on Aug. 14, 1945.]


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Irving Haberman/IH Images // Getty Images

1946: Democrats lose Congress

The 1946 midterm elections gave Republicans the majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time since 1928. Republicans added 56 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate, seemingly presaging a difficult election for President Harry Truman in his own right in two years.

[Pictured: Chair of the Democratic National Committee, American politician, and attorney James Howard McGrath during the 1948 Democratic Convention on July 12 in Philadelphia.]

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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

1947: Marshall Plan is proposed

Secretary of State George Marshall proposed the United States help Europe rebuild its economy after World War II. Congress passed the Economic Cooperation Act of 1948, which became known as the Marshall Plan, and set aside $13.3 billion for European recovery over four years. The United States benefited too, creating democracies in Europe and partners in trade.

In the same year, President Harry Truman gave $400 million in aid to Turkey and Greece to fend off Communism, marking the start of the Cold War.

[Pictured: Secretary of State George Marshall as he testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jan. 9, 1948.]

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Frank Cancellare/UPI // Getty Images

1948: Truman gets elected

President Harry Truman won his own term despite widespread expectations that he would lose to New York Gov. Thomas Dewey. “Dewey defeats Truman,” read the famously mistaken front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune. Truman had campaigned against a “do-nothing Congress” that had not passed his legislative proposals and had won support from unions with his veto of the Taft-Hartley bill that restricted their power. Congress overrode the veto.

[Pictured: President Harry S. Truman laughing as he holds an early edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune for Nov. 4th, 1948.]

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Drop of Light // Shutterstock

1949: NATO established to counter Soviet Union

NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was signed in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union, with the 12 founding members agreeing to protect one another in a collective defense. An attack against one member of the treaty is considered an attack on all. The treaty, which President Harry Truman helped to negotiate, was the first peacetime agreement that the United States joined in Europe.

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U.S. National Archives // Wikimedia Commons

1950: Korean War

North Korea invaded South Korea with the backing of the Soviet Union, after the secretary of state omitted South Korea when describing the American “defensive perimeter.” The North Koreans did not expect the United States to respond, but it went to the United Nations Security Council, and sent American troops. A cease-fire was reached in 1953, but not before millions of casualties. President Harry Truman acted without Congressional approval, expanding presidential power in the ability to go to war.

[Pictured: Brigadier Gen. Courtney Whitney, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and Maj. Gen. Edward Almond (at right, pointing), in Korea, observe the shelling of Incheon from the USS Mount McKinley (AGC-7), on Sept. 15, 1950.]


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Mike Flippo // Shutterstock

1951: Presidents are limited to two terms

Republicans opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third term, which he won. The country’s first president, George Washington, had declined to seek a third term, but a limit remained an informal practice. Roosevelt’s opponent for a fourth term, Thomas Dewey, called 16 years in office a threat to freedom and proposed a constitutional amendment. With the ratification of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, presidents were formally limited to two terms.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1952: Kefauver outmaneuvered at convention

Democratic Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee won the New Hampshire primary before President Harry Truman declared he would not seek re-election. Angry at Kefauver, Truman helped Democratic Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois to capture the nomination despite Kefauver’s string of primary victories. This was the last convention not decided on the first ballot as both parties began requiring delegates to back their state primary winners. Stevenson lost the election to Republican General Dwight D. Eisenhower in a landslide.

[Pictured: Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson waves to a cheering crowd in Chicago's International Amphitheater on July 26, 1952, as President Truman steps aside after introducing the Democratic Presidential candidate for 1952.]

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United States Senate // Wikimedia Commons

1953: McCarthy pursues Communists

When the infamous demagogue from Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, became chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, three Democrats on the committee resigned in a dispute over staff. Even Republicans stopped attending sessions as McCarthy and his lawyer Roy Cohen bullied and smeared witnesses on their own as they conducted a witch hunt for Communists in the government.

[Pictured: Chief Senate Counsel representing the United States Army Joseph Welch (left) with Sen. McCarthy (right) at the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations' McCarthy-Army hearings, June 9, 1954.]

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Orhan Cam // Shutterstock

1954: Democrats take control of Congress

By 1954, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was attacking the U.S. Army and met his match when Joseph Welch, a lawyer representing the Army, asked him, “Have you no sense of decency?” From that point, the senator’s influence abruptly declined. With the country tired of McCarthy and a recession beginning to emerge, Democrats took control of the House and Senate.

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Thomas O’Hallorhan // Library of Congress

1955: Johnson has major heart attack

Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, the Democratic majority leader in the U.S. Senate, had a massive heart attack that nearly killed him and kept him sidelined for six weeks. He recovered and later became president, but he suffered from severe chest pains at the end of his life and needed oxygen. He died from another heart attack in 1973.

[Pictured: Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson photographed in September 1955.]


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Bert Hardy // Getty Images

1956: Eisenhower beats Stevenson again

In a rematch from four years earlier, President Dwight D. Eisenhower faced Democrat Adlai Stevenson in the presidential race and prevailed. Democrats fared better in Congress that year, where they remained in the majority in both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. In the House, they gained two seats.

[Pictured: President Dwight D. Eisenhower reacts to his re-election on Nov. 5, 1956.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1957: Civil Rights Act approved

The House of Representatives and the Senate, both then controlled by Democrats, passed the Civil Rights Act proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which established the Civil Rights Division in the U.S. Department of Justice. It authorizes the U.S. attorney general to take action if state officials try to obstruct voting rights.

[Pictured: President Eisenhower poses in the White House with civil rights leaders following their conference on June 23, 1958.]

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Scott Wurzel // Shutterstock

1958: Democrats see big Congressional wins

Republicans suffered big losses in the election in the middle of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term: 48 seats in the House of Representatives and 13 seats in the Senate. The election represented the largest switch between parties in the Senate, and it upended the balance in the Senate between Southern Democrats and those from the rest of the country. Going forward, Democrats from the North and West outnumbered Southerners almost two to one.

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U.S. National Archives // Wikimedia Commons

1959: Democrats torpedo Cabinet nomination

The new Democratic strength in the Senate showed itself when President Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated Adm. Lewis Strauss as his commerce secretary. A history from the U.S. Senate described him as condescending and disdainful toward its members, and his nomination fell 49 opposed to 46 in favor. Eisenhower called the vote “the second most shameful day in Senate history,” after the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.

[Pictured: President Eisenhower receives a report from Lewis L. Strauss, on the hydrogen bomb tests (Operation Castle) in the Pacific, March 30, 1954.]

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Keystone // Getty Images

1960: John F. Kennedy elected president

John F. Kennedy, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, became the first Roman Catholic elected to the presidency. With the country worried about where his allegiance would fall—with the United States or with the Vatican—he gave a speech to Protestant ministers at a meeting of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said.

[Pictured: Sen. Kennedy is given a rousing ovation during his presidential campaign.]


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Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone // Getty Images

1961: Lyndon Johnson becomes vice president

In becoming vice president, Lyndon Johnson had to give up his very powerful post as Senate majority leader. He asked that as the president of the Senate, he be designated the permanent presiding officer of the Democratic caucus. His fellow Democrats rose up against the idea.

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U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons

1962: Cuban missile crisis begins

President John F. Kennedy learned of missiles being built by the Soviet Union in Cuba in October. A tense standoff developed between the United States and the Soviet Union with the possibility of nuclear war as the backdrop. The crisis was averted when the Soviets removed their missiles, but the arms race was continued.

[Pictured: A U.S. Navy Lockheed SP-2H Neptune of patrol squadron VP-18 Flying Phantoms flying over a Soviet freighter in 1962.]

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Keystone // Getty Images

1963: Kennedy is assassinated

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, in Dallas. He was shot while in a motorcade traveling through downtown Dealey Plaza. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was with him on the trip, was sworn in as president, taking the oath of office on Air Force One before it flew the slain president’s body back to Washington D.C. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself killed two days later by Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner, while being transferred from police headquarters to jail.

[Pictured: Jacqueline Kennedy, Edward Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy stand as the coffin of President Kennedy passes them on Nov. 25, 1963.]

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Yoichi Okamoto/White House Photographer // Wikimedia Commons

1964: Congress passes Civil Rights Act

Congress approved the Civil Rights Act of 1964, proposed by former President John F. Kennedy and driven through by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It banned discrimination in public places; called for integrating schools and other public facilities; and prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. A group of Republican and Southern Democratic senators opposed the bill, which passed despite a filibuster attempt.

[Pictured: President Johnson meets with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and James Farmer on Jan. 18, 1964.]

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U.S. National Archives // Wikimedia Commons

1965: Johnson proposes greatness

President Johnson proposed what he termed “A Great Society,” a group of domestic programs that were intended to eradicate poverty and racial inequalities. The programs provided aid for education, battled poverty, created Medicare and Medicaid, developed poor areas, and ensured the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act prohibited the tactics Southern states had used to prevent African Americans from voting—from poll taxes and literacy tests to violence—when they tried to register.

[Pictured: President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Medicare Bill at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, seated next to former President Truman.]


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Bill Senft/Newsday RM // Getty Images

1966: Anti-war protests grow

Student-led protests across the country grew as the Vietnam War escalated. At the University of Wisconsin, students took over an administration building, while at Cornell University, students organized a draft-card burning movement. In February, President Lyndon B. Johnson told Sen. Eugene McCarthy, “I know we oughtn’t to be there, but I can’t get out. I just can’t be the architect of surrender.”

[Pictured: Picketers carry signs protesting the Vietnam War in Salisbury Park in East Meadow, New York, prior to the arrival of President Johnson by helicopter on Oct. 12, 1966.]

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AFP // Getty Images

1967: Riots erupt across the country

Riots broke out in more than 100 cities across the country in Los Angeles; Newark, New Jersey; Detroit; and New York City. Despite President Lyndon B. Johnson’s efforts to end racial injustice, change was happening too slowly for many people facing unemployment, poverty, and police brutality. It was known as the long hot summer.

[Pictured: A policeman stands guard in a Detroit street on July 25, 1967, as buildings are burning during riots that erupted following a police operation.]

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Harry Benson/Express // Getty Images

1968: King and Kennedy assassinated

In late March, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election, but would focus on bringing peace to Vietnam. Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April, and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of former President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in June, the night he won the California presidential primary. The country erupted in unrest. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago ended in bloody protests and the selection of Sen. Hubert Humphrey as the party’s candidate. He lost the presidential election to Republican Richard Nixon.

[Pictured: Sen. Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally in 1968.]

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1969: Americans walk on the moon

American astronauts Neil Amstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins landed on the moon on July 20, eight years after former President John F. Kennedy announced his goal of sending an American to the moon before the end of the decade. The walk on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin came during President Nixon’s first year in office.

[Pictured: Former President Lyndon B. Johnson (left) and Vice President Spiro Agnew (right, center) view the lift-off of Apollo 11 at Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969.]

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Thomas J. O’Halloran LOC // Wikimedia Commons

1970: Chisholm publishes autobiography detailing firsts

A year after she began serving her first term representing New York’s 12th District, Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, published her autobiography “Unbought and Unbossed.” She would go on to become the first woman and the first African American to seek the nomination for president from one of the major parties.


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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration // Wikimedia Commons

1971: Nixon installs taping system

Republican President Richard Nixon installed a taping system in the White House’s Oval Office and Cabinet Room, and in the Executive Office building. Three years later the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed the tapes that covered the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in 1972, and the later efforts to cover it up.

[Pictured: President Richard Nixon in a Cabinet meeting on Dec. 6, 1971.]

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White House Photo Office Collection // Wikimedia Commons

1972: Nixon trounces McGovern

Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, a liberal and an opponent of the Vietnam War, lost badly to Republican incumbent Richard Nixon, taking only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Nixon’s downfall, however, was already set. The June break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Office Building began the Watergate scandal that would force his resignation in 1974.

[Pictured: President Nixon campaigns in Westchester County, New York, on Oct. 23, 1972.]

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U.S. House of Representatives // Wikimedia Commons

1973: Jordan goes to Congress

Democrat Barbara Jordan was the first African American to take a seat in Congress from Texas after Reconstruction. She served three terms and became known for her argument for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. A member of the House Judiciary Committee, she said in a speech: “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total, and I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

[Pictured: Barbara Jordan of Texas sits on the House Judiciary Committee as a freshman during the Watergate hearings in 1974.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1974: Detroit elects a Black mayor

Coleman Young was elected the first Black mayor of Detroit. He served until 1994, admired by many African Americans, but distrusted by many whites who believed he hated them. Detroit struggled with a shrinking population, plummeting revenues and services, and businesses that moved away, but it also began the renaissance it is experiencing today.

[Pictured: Mayor Coleman Young speaking at a press conference on July 29, 1975.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1975: Chicago’s Daley wins a sixth term

Richard J. Daley was elected to his sixth term as Chicago’s mayor in 1975. He was praised for sparing Chicago the problems of other Rust Belt cities, but reviled for his harsh response to the riots after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and for resisting desegregation.

[Pictured: Mayor Richard J. Daley makes a victory speech after winning the Democratic primary for mayor in his campaign headquarters in Chicago on Feb. 25, 1975.]


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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

1976: Carter defeats Ford for president

Jimmy Carter, the Democratic peanut farmer from Georgia, defeated incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford for the presidency. Carter achieved the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel, created the Department of Education, and deregulated the trucking and airline industries. In international affairs, he stressed human rights and earned the ire of the Soviet Union in particular.

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Wally McNamee/Corbis // Getty Images

1977: Carter creates energy department

President Jimmy Carter signed the Emergency Natural Gas Act passed by Congress that allows him to deregulate the price of natural gas, of which there was a shortage. Carter proposes creating a Department of Energy, which was founded that year.

[Pictured: President Carter speaks to members of a Congressional energy panel on Oct. 19, 1977, at a White House conference on the U.S. energy crisis.]

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Janet Fries // Getty Images

1978: San Francisco mayor and supervisor assassinated

San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official, were assassinated by Dan White, a former supervisor who had clashed with them. Dianne Feinstein became the first woman to serve as mayor of San Francisco after Moscone’s death. In 1992, Feinstein and fellow Democrat Barbara Boxer were elected to the U.S. Senate, the first women to represent California.

[Pictured: Recently elected members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk and Carol Ruth Silver, pose outside City Hall in San Francisco, March 1978.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1979: First woman elected mayor in Chicago

Jane Byrne was elected mayor of Chicago, the first woman in the job. She was known for besting the Democratic machine that ran Chicago and for a term in office that included encouraging movies like “The Blues Brothers” to film in the city, but later for alienating the coalition of liberals and African Americans who helped her get to City Hall.

[Pictured: Chicago's Democratic mayoral candidate Jane Byrne campaigning on April 2, 1979, in Chicago.]

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White House Photographic Office // Wikimedia Commons

1980: Carter loses to Reagan

Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter by winning 489 electoral votes to his 49. The end of Carter’s presidency was marred by persistent inflation and the taking of hostages among the staff at the American embassy in Iran. They were held for more than a year before being released on the day that he left office.

[Pictured: Ronald and Nancy Reagan wave from a limousine during the Inaugural Parade in Washington D.C. on Inauguration Day 1981.]


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Bettmann // Getty Images

1981: Hunt Commission creates superdelegates

Democrats created a commission named after its chairman, North Carolina’s Gov. James Hunt to change how the party chooses its presidential candidate. The commission created superdelegates, or unpledged delegates. In 2018, the party revised the superdelegate system to reduce their influence and they can no longer participate in the first round of balloting.

[Pictured: An overhead view of the crowd at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1982: Cuomo wins gubernatorial race

Mario Cuomo won the race for New York governor, going on to be a three-term governor. He was a part of the liberal wing of the Democratic party who considered running for president, but in the end, declined. In his speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, he told President Ronald Reagan: “Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘shining city on a hill.’”

[Pictured: Mario Cuomo waves to supporters after defeating GOP candidate Lew Lehrman on Nov. 2, 1982.]

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Wally McNamee/Corbis // Getty Images

1983: Chicago elects first Black mayor

Harold Washington became the first African American elected mayor in Chicago, defeating Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley, the son of the former Mayor Richard J. Daley, in a primary. Residents were unhappy with Byrne, and many African Americans had registered to vote. He died shortly after he was elected to his second term, suffering a heart attack in City Hall.

[Pictured: Chicago mayoral candidate Harold Washington smiles and waves as he moves through a crowd of supporters on April 1, 1983.]

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Sonia Moskowitz/Images // Getty Images

1984: Ferraro joins Democratic ticket

Democrats chose New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as their vice presidential candidate, who with former Vice President Walter Mondale took on President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush. The Democrats lost, but Ferraro made history as the first woman to be on the ticket for a major party.

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White House Photographic Office // Wikimedia Commons

1985: Bipartisan effort to balance the budget

The Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 represented a bipartisan effort to reduce the federal deficit. It created a method of automatic enforcement called sequestration, but did not significantly affect the deficit.

[Pictured: Bipartisan Congressional leadership meeting with Alan Simpson, Bob Dole, Robert Byrd, Bob Michel, and Jim Wright in the White House Cabinet Room, on Nov. 12, 1985.]


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Bettmann // Getty Images

1986: Iran-Contra affair is revealed

President Ronald Reagan revealed that the United States had secretly sold arms to Iran in violation of federal laws, and had diverted between $10 million and $30 million from the arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras. The Reagan administration denied the sale was connected to the release of the Iran hostages. Two years later, the Democratic-controlled House voted against $36.2 million in new aid to the contras despite entreaties from the administration.

[Pictured: Oliver North is sworn in on his first day of testimony at the Iran Contra hearings on July 7, 1987.]

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White House Photographic Office // Wikimedia Commons

1987: Congress overrides Reagan’s veto

Congress moves to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate pollutants in water. When President Ronald Reagan vetoed the Water Quality Control Act, it overrode him. The act amended the Clean Water Act for research, pollution control programs, and other purposes.

[Pictured: President Reagan at the signing ceremony for the Federal Debt Limit and Deficit Reduction Bill at the Rose Garden on Sept. 29, 1987.]

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1988: Texas’ Richards speaks at convention

As Texas state treasurer, Ann Richards delivered the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. She mocked then-Vice President George H.W. Bush with such lines as “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” She went on to be elected governor of Texas, but was defeated for re-election in 1994 by George W. Bush.

[Pictured: Ann Richards, Texas state treasurer, covers the keynote address at the opening session of the Democratic National Convention on July 18, 1988.]

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1989: First African American is elected governor

Lawrence Douglas Wilder became the first African American to win a gubernatorial race when he took Virginia’s top job. Wilder, a lawyer, was elected lieutenant governor in 1985. At the time he was the first African American to be victorious in a statewide race. He very briefly considered vying for the Democratic nomination for president in 1991, but withdrew early.

[Pictured: Governor-elect Lawrence Douglas Wilder on Feb. 6, 1990.]

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1990: Dinkins becomes New York’s mayor

David Dinkins became the first African American mayor of New York City as the city faced serious problems, from AIDS to homelessness. He served one term during a time of racial tensions in the city. His election followed the rape of a white jogger in Central Park and the killing of a Black teenager in Brooklyn. He failed in a re-election bid, losing to Rudy Giuliani in 1993.

[Pictured: Mayor-elect David Dinkins and his wife Joyce on Nov. 7, 1989, in New York City.]


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1991: Democrats approve Operation Desert Storm

The Democratic-controlled Congress gave President George H.W. Bush approval to attack Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait. Operation Desert Storm lasted six weeks and resulted in fewer than 150 American deaths among the 500,000 troops involved. Bush sought Congressional approval, but wrote in his diary that he was determined to go ahead even without it and even if that meant impeachment.

[Pictured: President George Bush announces to Congress that American troops are to be sent to Iraq in the lead up to the 1991 Gulf War on March 6, 1991.]

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1992: Clinton wins presidency

William Jefferson Clinton won his first term as president, ousting Republican incumbent President George H.W. Bush. Over the course of his presidency, he achieved a series of economic successes, among them the lowest modern unemployment rate, the lowest inflation in three decades, a balanced budget, and a budget surplus.

[Pictured: Presidential candidate Bill Clinton (D-AR) speaks on the final weekend of his campaign Oct. 30, 1992, in Springfield, Ohio.]

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1993: Another Clinton leads health task force

President Bill Clinton announced that his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton would head a task force looking at how to reform America’s health care system. President Clinton hoped to be able to provide all American’s with health care, but by the end of the next year, the plan was dead.

[Pictured: President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore look on as First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks about health care reform on the south lawn of the White House on Sept. 23, 1993.]

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1994: Democrats lose control of Congress

For the first time in 40 years, Republicans win control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in what’s called the “Republican Revolution.” Their “Contract With America” called for dismantling welfare programs created by Democrats, balancing the budget, and cutting taxes.

[Pictured: Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House of Representatives, holds a copy of the "Contract With America" during a speech on April 7, 1995, on the steps of the Capitol in Washington.]

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1995: Barry begins fourth term as mayor

Marion Barry is sworn in as mayor of Washington D.C. for his fourth term. In between his first three terms, which began 16 years earlier, and his second stint in office, he got caught in a sting set up by the FBI and Washington police. Claiming he was set up, Barry was arrested on drug charges and went to jail. At the end of his final term, Congress created a financial control board to bypass Mayor Barry. He died in 2014.

[Pictured: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) confers with District Mayor Marion Barry during a break in the House panel vote to cut the District's budget by $148 million.]


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1996: Clinton is re-elected

President Bill Clinton beat Republican Kansas Sen. Bob Dole to became the first Democrat since President Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term. Republicans kept control of Congress. Ross Perot, a Texas billionaire who also ran, came in third. Clinton had about 49% of the popular vote to 41% for Dole.

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1997: Clinton eliminates budget deficit

President Bill Clinton reaches an agreement with Republican leaders in Congress on a plan to eliminate the budget deficit over five years. The strong economy allows them to be successful. Some of the surplus was a result of the Social Security payroll tax, but even without Social Security, the fiscal year 1999 had a surplus of $1.9 billion and the fiscal year 2000 had an $86.4 billion surplus, according to

[Pictured: Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich shakes hands with President Bill Clinton before the president signs the Balanced Budget Agreement on Aug. 5.]

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1998: Clinton is impeached

President Bill Clinton became the second president to be impeached, charged by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives of perjury for lying under oath and of obstructing justice. He was accused of trying to cover up an affair he had with Monica Lewinsky, a young White House intern.

[Pictured: Independent counsel Ken Starr being sworn in prior to testifying about his investigation of President Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky.]

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1999: Clinton is acquitted

Early in the year, President Bill Clinton was acquitted of the impeachment charges in the Senate. All 45 Democrats voted for his acquittal, and five Republicans joined them. An attempt to censure the president in the Senate also failed. Clinton later said he was “profoundly sorry” for his behavior.

[Pictured: President Clinton talks to the media after learning that the Senate voted to acquit him on Feb. 12, 1999.]

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2000: Gore loses to Bush in disputed election

Vice President Al Gore lost the presidential election to Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush in a contested election that went before the U.S. Supreme Court. In December, the court halted a Florida recount and the decision went to George Bush. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor later said, “Maybe the Court should have said, ‘We’re not going to take it, goodbye.’”

[Pictured: Texas newspapers reporting on the presidential race dated Nov. 27, 2000.]


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2001: Terrorists attack World Trade Center, Pentagon

Democrats and Republicans came together to try to reassure the country after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the Democrat from South Dakota, called the attacks “an assault on our people and on our freedom.” A fourth plane, which went down in Pennsylvania, appears to have been headed for the White House or the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.

[Pictured: From left, Sen. Tom Daschle, Sen. Trent Lott, Speaker Dennis Hastert, Rep. Dave Bonior, and Rep. Dick Gephardt, appear with members of the House and Senate on the East Front Steps of the Capitol on Sept. 11.]

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2002: Carter receives peace prize

Former President Jimmy Carter, who in his retirement established the Carter Center, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was honored “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”

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2003: Blagojevich becomes Illinois governor

Rod Blagojevich took office as governor of Illinois, but later was accused of trying to trade or sell the U.S. Senate seat left open by Barack Obama’s election to the White House in 2008. After impeachment and trials, the former governor was sent to a federal prison in 2012 to serve a 14-year sentence, but in 2020 that sentence was commuted by President Donald Trump. Blagojevich continued to insist that he had not broken the law.

[Pictured: Gov. Rod Blagojevich speaks to members of the Illinois delegation for the Democratic National Convention during a meeting on July 26, 2004, in Boston.]

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2004: Kerry loses presidential bid

Democratic Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election to incumbent Republican President George W. Bush, who gained a victory of 58.6 million votes to win re-election. Democrats also lost seats in the House and in the Senate. Among those defeated was the Senate majority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Kerry had threatened to contest votes in Ohio, but did not.

[Pictured: Sen. John Kerry, Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a rally at the Allentown Fairgrounds in Pennsylvania on Sept. 10, 2004.]

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2005: Democrats challenge Ohio’s votes

A group of Democrats in Congress challenged Ohio’s 20 electoral votes when Congress met to certify the 2004 presidential election results. They said they did not expect to overturn the election, but to draw attention to voting problems in the state and the need to correct them.


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2006: Democrats win back Congress

Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the midterm elections, for the first time in about 12 years. The president and top Democrats pledged to cooperate despite differences. “But we do agree that we love America equally, that we’re concerned about the future of this country, and that we will do our very best to address big problems,” Bush said.

[Pictured: From left, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, Speaker of the House-elect Nancy Pelosi, and Majority Leader-elect Steny Hoyer raise their hands in victory after the Democratic Caucus elections on Capitol Hill on Nov. 16, 2006, in Washington.]

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2007: Virginia Tech massacre spurs call for gun control

Seung-Hui Cho, a student at Virginia Tech University, killed himself and 32 other students, in the deadliest mass shooting on a college campus, which sparked renewed calls for gun control. Although Democrats controlled Congress, positions for and against gun control fell on regional lines. Virginia finally got new laws at the state level in 2020, including ones that expand background checks and limit handgun purchases.

[Pictured: President George W. Bush makes a statement on the Virginia Tech University shootings on April 16, 2007, at the White House.]

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2008: Obama elected president

The country elected its first Black president with the victory of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois over Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Obama ran on a message of hope in America. He was met with a “birther” campaign that disputed his birthplace in Hawaii and questions about whether he was a Muslim like his father. His administration immediately had to deal with a country in the worst recession since the Great Depression.

[Pictured: President-elect Barack Obama stands on stage along with his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha during an election night gathering in Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008, in Chicago.]

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2009: Obama wins peace prize

President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize his first year in office. The Norwegian Nobel Committee cited him “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The committee noted his vision for a world without nuclear weapons and attention to the problems of climate change.

[Pictured: President Barack Obama poses with his diploma and medal next to the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, during the prize award ceremony at the City Hall in Oslo on Dec. 10, 2009.]

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2010: Affordable health care becomes law

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Democrats’ signature health reform, was signed into law by President Barack Obama in March. ACA, as it is known, offers health insurance to millions of Americans who previously lacked it. It protects Americans who have pre-existing health conditions, requires insurers to offer coverage to those under 26 on their parents’ policies, and forbids lifetime caps on benefits. Republican efforts to rescind it have failed.


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2011: Giffords shot in Arizona

Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head during a constituent event outside a supermarket in Tucson. She resigned from the House and has since worked for gun control through the Giffords Law Center. In 2020, former astronaut Mark Kelly, Giffords husband, won the Senate seat held by Republican John McCain. Arizona now has two Democratic senators.

[Pictured: Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (L) is escorted by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz after she resigned from the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill on Jan. 25, 2012.]

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2012: Obama wins second term

President Barack Obama won a second term against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He took the popular vote 51.1% to 47.2% and got 332 electoral votes. Romney received 206 electoral votes. Obama won among women, African Americans, and Latinos, and lost among white men.

[Pictured: President Barack Obama stands on stage with First Lady Michelle Obama after his victory speech at McCormick Place in Chicago.]

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2013: ‘Trayvon Martin could have been me ...’

President Barack Obama tried to explain why the African American community was so upset about the acquittal of the killer of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Black teenager shot in Sanford, Florida, as he returned to his father’s fiance’s townhouse from a convenience store. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was acquitted on a second-degree murder charge. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said.

[Pictured: President Barack Obama speaks on the Trayvon Martin case during remarks in the White House briefing room July 19, 2013.]

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2014: Obama signs LGBT protections

President Barack Obama advanced protections for LGBT workers. His executive order forbids federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees, adding sexual orientation and gender identity to an order issued by former President Lyndon Johnson.

[Pictured: President Obama signs an executive order to protect LGBT employees from workplace discrimination on July 21, 2014.]

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2015: Obama introduces clean power plan

President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency created the Clean Power Plan to address the effects of climate change. The plan was intended to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, the country’s largest source of carbon, by more than 30% by 2030. President Donald Trump rolled back the plan, replacing it with one that lets states set their own rules.

[Pictured: President Obama speaks at Sempra U.S. Gas & Power's Copper Mountain Solar 1 facility, the largest photovoltaic solar plant in the U.S., on March 21, 2012, in Boulder City, Nevada.]


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2016: Democrats nominate Clinton for presidential race

Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major American political party. As the Democrats’ candidate, she lost to Donald Trump, making his first run for any political office. The race was bitter, Russians hacked emails from her presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee, and although Trump got 2.8 million fewer popular votes, he won the Electoral College 304 to 227 for the former secretary of state and first lady.

[Pictured: Hillary Clinton acknowledges the crowd at the end on the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 28, 2016, in Philadelphia.]

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2017: California sues Trump

California’s Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the Trump administration 24 times in 2017 over a range of disputes, from immigration to climate change. By August 2020, California sued over his policies 100 times, including over California’s ability to set its own standards on vehicle emissions.

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2018: Russians indicted in connection with 2016 campaigns

Democrats received more information about how Russians had worked against them in the 2016 election when the Department of Justice charged 13 Russians and three companies in an indictment that involved Russians posing as political activists and stirring up disputes on immigration and race. President Donald Trump tweeted that his campaign had done nothing wrong. The DOJ later moved to drop charges against two of the companies, saying they were using the legal system to obtain information.

[Pictured: Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Intelligence Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election on July 24, 2019.]

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2019: House Democrats impeach Trump

The Democratic-led House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The president was accused of trying to pressure Ukraine to conduct investigations to discredit former Vice President Joe Biden, his likely rival in 2020. Trump became the third president to be impeached. He was acquitted the next year by the Republican-controlled Senate.

[Pictured: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gavels the close of a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives on a resolution formalizing the impeachment inquiry centered on President Trump, Oct. 31, 2019.]

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2020: Biden beats Trump

Former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden beat President Trump in a historic election that saw the country choose the first Black woman and first Asian American woman as vice president. The election took place in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The days after President-elect Biden’s victory were unprecedented as Trump refused to concede and repeatedly challenged the result in court, unsuccessfully. President-elect Biden won 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232.

[Pictured: President-elect Joe Biden speaks at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 10, 2020]

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