Where Did The Idea Of "Red States" and "Blue States" Come From?


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That’s all, folks: The 2012 election is finally over. In the run up, we tackled big election questions, from why we vote on Tuesdays to what would happen in the event of a natural disaster on Election Day to whether Americans actually move to Canada after elections. But there’s one lingering question we haven’t yet tackled: Where did the notion of Red States and Blue States come from, and how did those colors come to represent their particular political parties?

Party Colors

These days, red means Republican and blue means Democrat, but it wasn't always so. The first color-coded electoral map, which appeared on NBC as part of the 1976 election, showed states that went to Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter red, while states that supported incumbent Gerald Ford were blue. Individual news outlets could decide what colors to assign the candidates—in 1976, ABC's map used yellow for Ford, blue for Carter, and red for states where votes weren't yet tallied—and the colors often flip-flopped from election to election.

Until the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. According to the Washington Post, the first use of "red states" and "blue states" occurred about a week before the election on the Today Show. Matt Lauer and Tim Russert were discussing what states would go to which candidate with a map and the color scheme that MSNBC had used a few days earlier—red for Republican, blue for Democrat—when Russert asked, "How does [Bush] get those remaining 61 electoral red states, so to speak?" In the days following the highly contested election, everything seemed to align: Both the New York Times and USA Today released maps with Gore's states in blue and Bush's in red, and then David Letterman suggested that a compromise would "make George W. Bush president of the red states and Al Gore head of the blue ones." But it was probably the sheer length of the election—which lasted into mid-December as votes were recounted and the Supreme Court weighed in—and the ubiquity of the maps that caused the colors to stick to their current parties.

Choosing Hues

So why red and why blue? There are some wacky theories: one party always called the other red, or it's because of the Communist connotation. But Roy Wetzel, the general manager of NBC's election unit in 1976, told Smithsonian recently that NBC used those colors—and associated them with those parties from 1976 until 2000—because that's how things are done in England. "Without giving it a second thought, we said blue for conservatives, because that's what the parliamentary system in London is, red for the more liberal party," he said. Stephen Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, pointed out to the Washington Post in 2004 that red and blue are flag colors that happen to look good on the TV. Other colors that we might use, like gray and blue, are too reminiscent of the Civil War, and yet others might be too subtle. But whatever the reason red and blue colors were chosen, one thing is for sure: We're stuck with them—and all their associations.