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shameless pleading

Blue state / Red state

I wanna be sedated.

Dear Word Detective: Now that we are in the throes of another political campaign season, my curiosity has become aroused by the designation of Democratic-leaning states as “blue” states, and Republican-leaning states as “red” states. These designations seem to have come out of the blue a few years ago, and I would like to know how and when they came about. I am curious, too, about the colors. It seems to me they should be reversed. I associate blue with “blue-nosed” and “blue laws,” which suggests to me conservatism/Republicanism, and red with the left in politics, where the Democrats are generally positioned. — Russell J. Greatens.

Good question, but you left out the “purple” states, where a solid majority of voters cast their ballots for Barney the Dinosaur. The big galoot actually carried the state of Ohio (where I live) last time around. Quite a change, I must say. The colors are much brighter now, people are nicer and almost everyone sings instead of talking. It makes dealing with the local IRS office downright pleasant. “I love you, you love me, we’ll just waive those penalties….”

OK, back to depressing reality. But Ohio really is a “purple” state (a mixture of “red” and “blue”), one where the margin between Democratic and Republican votes has been narrow, to put it mildly, in the last few elections. In reality, of course, no state is all one party, and the “red/blue” election-night shorthand only has any validity at all because of the “winner take all” US Electoral College.

The “red state/blue state” divide has become such a staple of cable news since the 2000 presidential election that many people assume that it’s a recent invention, but it isn’t. More importantly, although “red” and “blue” have become rallying cries for political partisans in recent years, the color labels were never intended to last beyond a given election, and are, in fact, supposed to flip in 2008.

The use of “red” and “blue” as color codes on maps of electoral results actually dates back to at least 1908, when the Washington Post printed a special supplement in which Republican states were colored red and Democratic blue The colors were apparently arbitrarily assigned in that case, although in later years both parties strove to claim blue (as in “true blue Americans”) and avoid red, with its connotations of radicalism.

Finally, in 1976, the TV networks agreed to a formula to avoid any implication of favoritism in color selections. The color of the incumbent party, initially set as blue for Gerald Ford’s Republican ticket in that year, would flip every four years. Consequently, a successful challenger runs again in four years, as the incumbent, under the same color. So in 1992, the challenger Clinton was red on the maps, and in 1996, incumbent Clinton was also red. Challenger Bush, red in 2000, was red again as an incumbent in 2004. But perhaps because the pundits decreed 2000 to be a watershed election, the “red/blue” divide has assumed a broader political significance (at least to pundits), and although the formula dictates that the Republicans should be carrying the blue flag in 2008, it will be interesting to see how the networks color their maps.

4 comments to Blue state / Red state

  • marcparis

    I wrote to the Washington Post Answer Man about this, and he sent me this article from the WP. It is more about “red state” and “blue state” than the convention itself, but it is quite different from Evan’s reply:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A17079-2004Nov1.html

    Elephants Are Red, Donkeys Are Blue
    Color Is Sweet, So Their States We Hue

    By Paul Farhi
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, November 2, 2004; Page C01

    Tonight, as the results of this too-close-to-call election trickle in,
    voters will find out not just who they’ve chosen to lead them, but where
    they live — in “red” or “blue” America.

    The TV networks’ electoral maps will turn red once again when President
    Bush wins a state, and blue when John Kerry claims one. The evening’s talk
    will likely break along red and blue lines. DanPeterTom will discuss which
    states might go red, which are trending blue, and which, depending on their
    ultimate chromatic disposition, could decide the election.

    Red and blue, of course, have become more than just the conveniently
    contrasting colors of TV graphics. They’ve become shorthand for an entire
    sociopolitical worldview. A “red state” bespeaks not just a Republican
    majority but an entire geography (rectangular borders in the country’s
    midsection), an iconography (Bush in a cowboy hat), and a series of
    cultural cliches (churches and NASCAR). “Blue states” suggest something on,
    and of, the coastal extremes, urban and latte-drinking. Red states — to
    reduce the stereotypes to an even more vulgar level — are a little bit
    country, blues are a little more rock-and-roll.

    How has it come to this? What cosmic decorator did the states’ colors,
    reducing a continental nation’s complicated political and cultural
    realities to a two-tone palette?

    The answers are somewhat murky — we may have to wait for a recount to be
    sure — but it appears the 2000 election, NBC’s graphics department and
    David Letterman all played critical roles.

    Before Bush’s disputed victory over Al Gore four years ago, there was no
    consensus on the color of liberalism or conservatism. Indeed the scheme was
    often reversed, reflecting traditional European associations (red being not
    just the color of communism but of Great Britain’s Labor Party, too).

    In 1976, NBC identified states won by Gerald Ford in blue and Jimmy
    Carter’s states in red. On election night in 1980, ABC News showed Ronald
    Reagan’s march to the White House as a series of blue lights on a map, with
    Carter’s states in red. Time magazine assigned red to the Democrats and
    blue to the Republicans in its election graphics in every election from
    1988 to 2000. The Washington Post’s election graphics for the 2000 election
    were Republican-blue, Democrat-red.

    The first reference to “red states” and “blue states,” according to a
    database search of newspapers, magazines and TV news transcripts since
    1980, occurred on NBC’s “Today” show about a week before the 2000 election.
    Matt Lauer and Tim Russert discussed the projected alignment of the states,
    using a map and a color scheme that had first shown up a few days earlier
    on NBC’s sister cable network, MSNBC. “So how does [Bush] get those
    remaining 61 electoral red states, if you will?” Russert asked at one
    point.

    In an interview yesterday, Russert disclaimed credit for coining the
    red-state, blue-state distinction. “I’m sure I wasn’t the first to come up
    with it,” he said. “But I will take credit for the white board,” Russert’s
    signature, hands-on electoral vote tracker.

    As the 2000 election became a 36-day recount debacle, the commentariat
    magically reached consensus on the proper colors. Newspapers began
    discussing the race in the larger, abstract context of red vs. blue. The
    deal may have been sealed when Letterman suggested a week after the vote
    that a compromise would “make George W. Bush president of the red states
    and Al Gore head of the blue ones.”

    All of this doesn’t answer two fundamental questions: Why red? Why blue?

    Stephen Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington
    University, points to the obvious association with the American flag. He
    adds that those colors look good on a TV screen, too.

    Besides, other combinations wouldn’t work. We’ve already tried blue and
    gray, and we know how that ended up. It would be wrong, for obvious
    reasons, to divide the country into “black” states and “white” states. And
    it just wouldn’t look right to pick a more out-there palette, such as
    taupe-teal or puce-mauve.

    Some conspiracy-mind Republicans resent being colored red because that hue
    tends to be associated with negative traits (fiery, bloody, hot,
    red-in-the-face), although red is also associated with love. Blue,
    meanwhile, is peaceful and tranquil, the color of sky and water, but it’s
    also the color of cold and depression.

    The real problem may lie in the superficial caricatures that the colors
    conjure. Is it really accurate, after all, to describe New Mexico as a
    “blue” state when Gore won it by just 366 votes in 2000? In California — a
    state so blue that neither of the two leading candidates bothered
    campaigning much there this year — voters have in recent years approved
    initiatives repealing racial preferences and bilingual education, and have
    ousted a Democratic governor in favor of a Republican. Ohio — historically
    a red state — is close enough that Kerry might eke out a narrow victory,
    but it is also poised to pass overwhelmingly a constitutional amendment
    banning gay marriage.

    The whole red-blue division got an eloquent rebuke at the Democratic
    National Convention this summer, when Senate candidate Barack Obama told
    the cheering crowd, “We coach Little League in blue states and we have gay
    friends in red states. We pray to an awesome God in blue states and we
    don’t like federal agents sniffing around our libraries in red states.”

    Red? Blue? In roses and violets maybe, but politics and culture come in
    many hues, and many of them clash.

  • Although Clinton was, in fact, the incumbent in 1994, he did not run for reelection until 1996….

  • words1

    Fixed it. As our motto says, Any typos found are yours to keep.

  • words1

    Fixed in main web page too.

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