Red and blue states are deeply infused in today’s media’s coverage of national elections in the United States. Coverage of the 2018 midterm election focused on a blue wave, while “blue to red” and “red to blue” strategies are employed by both parties in every cycle.
However, this obsession with red and blue states is a 21st-century one, with different colors used in media coverage prior to the 2000 presidential election.
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Electoral Maps Weren’t Always Red and Blue States
The colorful distinction between major parties is a relatively recent phenomenon. Scribner’s Statistical Atlas of the United States published in 1883 detailed presidential voting patterns by county for prior elections. Each map highlighted Democratic dominance of the South in red, while Republican wins in the Northeast and Upper Midwest were highlighted in blue. Unsettled areas without popular votes were labeled white, completing the American flag motif.
This atlas did not represent a continuation of tradition nor a trendsetter for media use of colors for each party. Newspapers did not use colors on electoral maps until well into the 20th century, while television networks did not introduce color-coded electoral maps until 1972. CBS News detailed state-by-state victories for Richard Nixon and George McGovern on Election Night using blue and red, respectively.
But with the spread of color television, the three major networks adopted colored electoral maps for Election Night coverage, the colorways continued to evolve. NBC and CBS used blue for Republican wins and red for Democratic states in the 1976 presidential election between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. ABC News opted to use yellow for Republicans, blue for Democrats, and red for states that were not called for either candidate to that point.
The 1980 election featured a viable third-party candidate in John Anderson, which led ABC News to have orange on hand in case Anderson won any states. In 1984, ABC and CBS shifted to blue for Democrats and red for Republicans, which became standard across news departments by 1992.
In Cold War America, the television networks couldn’t consistently identify one party as “red” – it was the color of communists, after all – without being accused of political bias. So depending on the election or the network, red and blue states were variously assigned to Democrats and Republicans.
The 2000 presidential election turned Election Night colors into shorthand for political beliefs.
The 2000 Presidential Election
The first public utterance of either red or blue states is credited to NBC News political director and anchor Tim Russert. Russert referenced George W. Bush’s potential in “red states” during a segment on the Today Show the week prior to the 2000 election. Russert did not take credit for the phrase in an interview with The Washington Post but the colorful distinction became ubiquitous following the election.
Russert referenced an MSNBC electoral vote map of projected victories for Al Gore and George W. Bush in describing “red states.” The networks’ use of red and blue states was replicated by The New York Times and USA Today, which introduced the blue/red maps into newspapers for the first time.
By the end of Election Night, neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore had secured an electoral majority. All eyes were on Florida, where the result was too close to call. For the next 36 days, the country anxiously followed the television coverage of recounts and court challenges. And when the U.S. Supreme Court suspended the recount on December 12, Florida officially became a “red state.”
Night after night of election coverage had fixed our political colors in the national imagination: red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. Political commentators took to using red and blue states as shorthand, while late-night host David Letterman joked about red and blue states to a knowing public.
By the 2004 presidential election, red and blue states jumped off network electoral vote maps and into the American political lexicon.
Theories about how red and blue states became associated with American political parties have flourished since 2004. Political parties in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia use red for the liberal Labour Party and blue for the Conservative Party. These parties utilized colors from the British flag with liberals taking red due to its revolutionary connections and conservatives taking blue. This usage seemed to prevail in many cases prior to 1992, though was not a hard-and-fast reference.
Political observers including NBC’s Chuck Todd and Republican operative Clark Bensen claimed that red’s association with socialism influenced color usage. Todd argued that party operatives would make themselves blue and opponents red due to the color’s connection with the Soviet Union. Bensen argued that conservatives used blue due to its connection to rationality, while Democrats were red because they skewed toward socialism.
Network graphic designers and editors offered practical reasons why media outlets opted for the current use of blue and red. The primary reasons given by network staffers for usage of red and blue were standardization and alliteration. As a few outlets choose blue for Democrats and red for Republicans, other outlets fell in line to avoid viewer confusion. Red was also assigned to Republicans because “R” is the first letter in both words.
Criticism of Using Red and Blue States
The recent connection of major political parties to blue and red has not gone without criticism. Illinois State Senator Barack Obama criticized pundits who “like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states” in his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The future U.S. senator and president proceeded to say that the country was unified in support of the same values.
In a 2004 document titled “Red State Blues: Did I Miss That Memo?”, Clark Bensen criticized media outlets for shunning prior use of blue for Republicans and red for Democrats. He argued that reporters wanted to create its own political jargon at the exclusion of tradition. Bensen also argued that using party names and their connections to states was clearer than using colors.
Interestingly, a review of major-party candidate logos from presidential elections between 1972 and 2016 shows blue as a dominant color for both tickets. Democratic tickets used blue-dominant logos in the elections of 1984, 2000, 2008, 2012, and 2016. Republican tickets used blue-dominant logos in the elections of 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2016.
The Center for American Politics and Design confirmed blue’s continued strength in campaign logos during the 2018 midterm election. A majority of Republicans and Democrats running for Congress used blue as the primary logo color.
Interior and Design offers a scientific explanation for why blue has staying power in campaign logos. The eye contains cones that receive and process colors. There are roughly 64 percent of cones devoted to registering red, while 2 percent of cones receive blue. The high proportion of red-receiving cones means seeing red creates a stronger physiological response than seeing blue. Blue may be used by Democrats and Republicans to make logo texts stand out or to associate their candidates with calm leadership.
Video: Why Democrats Are Blue, Republicans Are Red
This video from Slate reviews how red and blue states haven’t always been that way. In fact, up until 2004, the standard color scheme for maps used by political operatives in Washington used blue for Republican and red for Democrat.