Blogs > Cliopatria > Why Republicans Are the Red States and Democrats the Blue

Feb 10, 2004 4:10 pm

Why Republicans Are the Red States and Democrats the Blue

Tom Zeller, in the NYT (Feb. 8, 2004):

[I]t is testament to the visual onslaught of the 2000 election - those endlessly repeated images of the electoral United States - that the Red State/Blue State dichotomy has become entrenched in the political lexicon.

"The red states have turned redder," the Bush campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, said recently, "while the blue states have turned purple."

To many, this palette represents an ignorant (or perhaps intentional) reversal of international tradition, which often associates red with left-leaning parties and blue with the right. "It's weird, is all," wrote a blogger at, a political Web journal. "I'd like some accountability if people are going to start messing with cultural symbolism willy-nilly."

Mark Monmonier, a professor of geography at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and an expert in the use of maps as analytical and persuasive tools, found himself automatically reversing the current color code. "I remember talking in a class about the red states and blue states," he said, "and a student actually corrected me."

Online political discussion groups buzz with conspiracy theories about the maps, suggesting that Republican states were made red because that color typically represents the enemy on military combat maps, or because red has more negative psychological baggage (fiery, dangerous) than friendly, pacific blue.

Others have thought it simply a naïve attempt to avoid trafficking in stereotypes (Democrats are Reds, or socialists). Professor Monmonier suggested - jokingly - that the red-left, blue-right association more rightly follows the conventional ordering of visible light (red, yellow, green, blue, and so forth).

But in the United States, at least, the color coding has rarely been static.

An early marriage of red and blue with the two major parties is noted in the Texas State Historical Association's Handbook of Texas History Online, which describes a color-coding system developed in the 1870's to help illiterate and Spanish-speaking voters navigate English-language ballots in South Texas. Local Democratic leaders called their party the Blues; Republicans chose to be the Reds.

By late in the next century, however, few were guided by that historical tidbit - or any other convention.

"It's beginning to look like a suburban swimming pool," the television anchor David Brinkley noted on election night 1980, as hundreds of Republican-blue light bulbs illuminated NBC's studio map, signaling a landslide victory for Ronald Regan over the Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. Other staffers, Time magazine wrote, called it "Lake Reagan."

Mr. Carter's bulbs were red.

Five years later, in her book "My Story," Geraldine A. Ferraro recalled watching her 1984 vice presidential bid founder on the television screen. Mr. Reagan's victory this time around was rendered in both flavors. "One network map of the United States was entirely blue for the Republicans," she wrote. "On another network, the color motif was a blanket of red."

By the 1990's, the color scheme was becoming a bit more formalized - at least on network and cable television. But other news outlets continued to vary.

Time magazine had favored Democratic red and Republican white in the 1976 election between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, then reversed those colors for Reagan and Carter in 1980. By 1988, the magazine was using Republican blue and Democratic red, and it stayed with that motif even through the 2000 election, which has colorized the nation's political language in precisely the opposite way.


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