The Origin of Red-State / Blue-State Politics
Why red means Republican and blue means Democrat.
TIP: See an essay on color in politics.
FACT: America is a Federal Republic; with strong Democratic tradition. Our flag is Red, White, and Blue. The names of parties and colors have next to nothing to do with their government style. They are all gleaned from our power structure and flag.
The History of Party Colors in the United States
Prior to the United States presidential election of 2000, which party was Red and which was Blue was largely a matter of which color a news outlet chose. On the October 30, 2000, episode of the Today show, Tim Russert coined the terms “red state” and “blue state.”
As far back as the 1888 election blue was used to represent the northern Union states (Republicans in those days) and red the south, but this wasn’t consistent throughout time (see Origins of the color scheme). In the 70’s and 80’s (starting in 1976) the major networks starting using lighted maps to illustrate election results. Democrats were often coded blue and Republicans red, but it wasn’t consistent. This inconsistent coloring continued throughout the Clinton years and up to the Gore Vs. Bush. This can all be varied by old videos and articles.
Why Were Different Colors Used?
Prior to the 2000’s colors were chosen for a variety of reasons. They include:
- The flag is Red, White, and Blue. I think we can assume why no one wanted to overtly be “the white team.”
- Every party would try to use the color blue as, especially after the Cold War, “no one wanted to be RED.” Thus, we’d often get yellow (see the Carter/Ford election video below).
- In other cases, red was picked for liberals as that is the traditional international “liberal” color; blue was picked for conservatives.
Today, when looking at documents produced after 2000, Democrats are typically coded blue. For instance, this color map of all past elections by state uses Blue to represent the Democratic Party and Red to Represent Republicans regardless of what color was used at the time.
Election Night 1976 Part 1
FACT: Historically each party would use the color blue, especially after the Cold War, as “no one wanted to be RED.” Red is traditionally associated with socialism and Communism, which are liberal.
“For years, both parties would do red and blue maps, but they always made the other guys red,” said Chuck Todd, political director and chief White House correspondent for NBC News. “During the Cold War, who wanted to be red?” – From Smithsonianmag.com
Tim Russert Coined the Terms “Red State” and “Blue State” in 2000
According to the Washington Post, modern use of the terms “red state” to describe Republican-dominated states and “blue state” to describe Democratic-Party-dominated states were coined by journalist Tim Russert, during his televised coverage of the 2000 presidential election.
NOTE: The idea that Tim Russert coined the terms has been widely repeated online, but I have yet to confirm this aspect of the factoid fully. I will try to find more evidence and add it to the page.
TIP: This truism should not be confused with the changing platforms of political parties. A lot changed over the years, not only the colors which news sources used for political parties. From Civil War Reconstruction on, the parties were factionalized, a series of complex changes ensued, and over the next 140 years, the Democrats got more progressive and Republicans more conservative.