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Why "Red" and "Blue" States?

 Often you’ll hear pundits or even journalists refer to “red states” and “blue states”.  This is used as shorthand for “conservative states” and “liberal states”, respectively, or “reliably Republican states in presidential elections” and “reliably Democratic states in presidential elections”.  You’ll sometimes hear someone say they could never live in a red state, or in a blue state.  This might give you the impression that these terms have been around forever.  Actually, this standard is only about twenty years old—or it will be twenty years old this November.

Color-coded maps showing the outcomes of presidential elections are nothing new.  They’re more common in recent years, simply because color printing isn’t as expensive as it used to be, but you can find such maps pretty far back in the 19th century.  Red and blue are popular colors to use to mark which candidate won which states for the simple reason that those are the two dominant colors on the American flag.  Which color represented which party was chosen arbitrarily; there was no widely held association traditionally made between parties and colors in the minds of Americans.

Television is what led to the assigning of colors to the parties, but it took a while.  Presidential election results have been monitored on television since the 1948 election.  It didn’t have much impact, since relatively few people had televisions in those days.  TV election coverage wasn’t too different from what you heard on the radio: reporting on which states had been called for which candidates, and how many electoral votes looked to be in the bag for whom.  Broadcasts were also in black and white, so there was no reason to think about color.

CBS News Election Coverage: November 4, 1952 - YouTube

A screenshot of NBC News’s 1952 presidential contest between Gov. Adlai Stevenson (D-IL) and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (R-KS).  The low numbers show it’s still early in the night.

The 1960 results were the first ones to get thorough coverage and analysis, but though the broadcasts made much use of charts and vote counters, there was still no significant use of maps.  Maps weren’t really used until the 1976 election.  By then, color television was much more common, and viewers wanted more of a spectacle.  The three TV networks—NBC, ABC and CBS—decorated their sets with large maps of the United States, with states changing colors to indicate who was winning which state.  But the colors still weren’t fixed.  ABC colored states for Jimmy Carter, the Democrat, in blue, and states for Gerald Ford, the Republican, in yellow—and the red states were the ones that hadn’t been called yet!  I remember my parents watching the returns on NBC.  Their map used red for Carter and blue for Ford.  Below is a screenshot of the map I remember seeing (or something like it.  By the time a map this complete had aired, it was well past my bedtime!)  Note for example that Mississippi is red and that Illinois is blue.  It would be unusual for a Republican to carry Illinois and a Democrat to carry Mississippi in a presidential election today, which gives you an idea how America’s electoral landscape has shifted.  I won’t go into that today.  This is about the colors. 

A screenshot from NBC News's Election NIght coverage, 1976. President Gerald Ford's (R-MI) states are in blue; Governor Jimmy Carter's (D-GA) states are in red. This map shows the election before it was ready to be called.

In subsequent election night coverage, the rule for everyone was red for one candidate, blue for the other.  There was no rule for which meant which, so if you went channel flipping on Election Night, you couldn’t get too used to one or the other.  The same applied to newspapers, which would print full-color maps as the cost of color printing went down: there was no standard.  The standard was born in 2000.

The standard didn’t start before Election Night 2000, or even on it, but rather it started after it.  Those who were old enough at the time will remember how close it was, and how the whole election came down to Florida.  Due to voting machine malfunctions, inaccurate voter roles, and confusingly printed ballots, it was unclear to the public whether Florida was won by Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush.  Different networks called each candidate the winner several times, but by the time the sun came up, no one was sure who had won—an unusual occurrence, and one that had only happened in 1960, 1876 and 1824.

The whole country was on edge while officials tried to settle the matter.  TV news teams discussed it ad nauseum, but there was one TV network that had a different way of talking about the issue: Fox News.  Fox had chosen for its color scheme red for Republicans and blue for Democrats.  In the aftermath of the election, Fox would refer to states won by Bush as “red states” and states won by Gore as “blue states”, which reflected the map graphic Fox was using.  The other three networks, as well as PBS, didn’t refer to states by color, even though they had colored maps of their own.  (As it happened, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, and Fox used red for Republicans and blue for Democrats in 2000, but that was not by design.)

Afterward, Fox viewers, who were overwhelmingly happy that the Supreme Court gave the presidency to Bush, continued to refer to states that Bush won as “red”, and to states that he didn’t win as “blue”.  This is fine when you’re talking about a solidly Republican state like Oklahoma, or a solidly Democratic state like Maryland.  The problem with this nomenclature is that some states don’t fall easily into one party’s column or the other.  Bush partisans would refer to Ohio as a “red state”, because Bush did win it twice, but since Ohio was close in both elections—and since Ohio is usually close in every election—it’s not really accurate to call it “red” or “blue”.  Then there are states that lean Democratic but could possibly go Republican, like Pennsylvania—is that a “blue” state?  Or Georgia, which leans Republican but could possibly go Democratic—is that a “red state?  Or are these purple states?  Is Pennsylvania bluish-purple?  Is Georgia reddish-purple?  These simplified terms might identify where a state has voted in a given election, but they don’t capture the whole picture.  They also don’t allow you to talk about the evolution of states’ leanings.  With Virginia becoming more Democratic and Wisconsin becoming more Republican, can we really use language that locks out such evolution?  Regardless, the red/blue divisions became the standard, and since 2004, every map and news outlet has adopted red for Republicans and blue for Democrats and is unlikely to switch.

“Red” and “blue” are still used as shorthand for “conservative” and “liberal”.  This is a little more logical when you’re making more localized descriptions.  I’ve heard of Orange County referred to as a “red pocket” in the “blue state” of California, and I’ve heard Austin called a “blue island” in the “red state” of Texas.  Maybe states that don’t have exact partisan leaning need to be assigned shades of purple, to capture the appropriate nuance.  Plum states, anyone?  Orchid states?  Amethyst states?  Lavender states?  If we go down that road, no team of political advisers will be complete without an interior decorator.


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