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.

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