Red State, Blue State – Where Did It Come From?

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By: Kevin Drum,

from Washington Monthly,

My friend Professor Marc just asked me where the terms “red state” and “blue state” came from. I provided the nickel explanation (it’s derived from the electoral map of the 2000 election), but added that there were some oddities about the whole thing that I myself didn’t understand.

So I hopped over to Nexis and did a search going back 20 years for every story that included both the phrase “red state” and “blue state.” Here’s what I found:

– The first print usage I uncovered was by David Nyhan in the Boston Globe on October 15, 1992: “But when the anchormen turn to their electronic tote boards election night and the red states for Clinton start swamping the blue states for Bush, this will be a strange night for me.”

– Note that in Nyhan’s column, he refers to red states as Democratic states and blue states as Republican states — just the opposite of current usage. As the Washington Post explained a few days ago:

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.

Although there was never any kind of consensus on this, prior to 2000 it was more common to associate red with Democrats and blue with Republicans.

– Astonishingly enough — at least in the sources indexed by Nexis — there is only one other reference to red and blue states in the U.S. print media for the entire rest of the decade (although the electoral maps themselves continued to be color coded, of course).

– In the 2000 election, NBC, CBS, CNN, and USA Today all coded their maps blue for Gore and red for Bush (I couldn’t find a reference for either ABC or Fox). Why the color switch from 1996, when Clinton states were generally colored red? Beats me. (UPDATE: Answer here!)

– So how did red and blue then get cemented permanently into place? The Post article takes the following stab at explaining it:

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 [David] 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.”

Maybe. My guess is that it had more to do with the fact that most of the networks — and it’s the networks that really count for visual stuff like this, not the print media — happened to color their maps the same way in 2000: blue for Gore, red for Bush. Letterman’s comment got quoted a lot, but it’s not clear that it really had much impact on the whole red/blue thing.

In my post yesterday about red states and blue states, one question I pondered was this: why were Gore states colored blue in 2000 election maps and Bush states red? After all, red is traditionally the color of lefty parties around the world, and in past elections network maps had usually colored Democratic states red.

In comments, Petey provides the answer:

Since the advent of color TV, there has been a formula to avoid charges of giving any party an advantage by painting it a “better” color. Here is the formula: the color of the incumbent party alternates every 4 years.

He seems to be quite correct.

This fits all the available evidence

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