Red vs. Blue: A history of how we use political colors

Then, later in the broadcast, the team shows the current map of who’s winning which…

Red vs. Blue: A history of how we use political colors

Then, later in the broadcast, the team shows the current map of who’s winning which state. And that, too, is jarring.

The Democrats are blue and the Republicans are … yellow? Why aren’t they red?┬áThe answer is: Because the assignation of red-as-Republican, blue-as-Democrat didn’t become the standard until the last election of the third century in which America existed: the election of 2000.

There have been a number of good assessments of how the way in which we depict the two parties has evolved. One of the earliest appeared here in the Post, shortly before the 2004 election. There was one shortly after that in Washington Monthly which is often cited; probably the most thorough is this one, from the Smithsonian.

What’s clear is that, prior to 2000, talking about “red states” and “blue states” wouldn’t necessarily have resulted in any understanding from your audience. In 1992, David Nyhan of the Boston Globe wrote of his mixed feelings about Bill Clinton’s candidacy. “[W]hen the anchormen turn to their electronic tote boards election night,” he wrote, “and the red states for Clinton start swamping the blue states for Bush, this will be a strange night for me.” You’ll notice that those colors are backward, by our current understanding. Nyhan is being figurative we can assume, recognizing the standard red-blue split if not the significance of the colors.

But by 1992, networks seem to have mostly settled on red-for-Republican, blue-for-Democrat. The first network to use a colored-state graphic for its election night broadcast was not NBC in 1976 (as this NBC-produced book about election nights would have you believe). It appears instead to have been CBS in 1972, which used segments of the country to illustrate how things were progressing. (The color on this is murky; just know that Nixon — blue — ended up winning all of these states.)

(It’s worth remembering that for several decades, map colors didn’t matter, since the footage was in black-and-white. Of course, for the first 40-plus presidential races, there was no television at all. People had to rely on — shudder — newspapers.)

The Smithsonian article tells a great story about the 1976 NBC map, which was a huge, physical map constructed of wood and plastic. When they practiced lighting up the bulbs, the plastic started to melt, requiring the installation of giant air conditioners. NBC, too, used red-for-Democrats, blue-for-Republicans.

There’s some discussion of why networks first drifted toward those colors. Red, the Smithsonian article suggests, was color non grata in American politics at the time, thanks to the Cold War. Red, of course, was associated with the Soviet Union, because it was associated with communism and socialism — and with left-leaning parties internationally. (See this poll from the upcoming British elections: Labour is red; the conservatives, blue.)

NBC kept using red-for-Democrats, blue-for-Republicans until at least 1984. By 1988, no network footage that we found used that combination, instead opting for the now-familiar Republican red, Democratic blue.

Most Americans probably weren’t paying very close attention to the decisions made by networks every four years, so it’s pretty safe to assume that they, like Nyhan, wouldn’t immediately have associated the parties as we do now.

Then there was the election of 2000, which, if you were born at any point after, say, 1985, and care even a tiny bit about politics, is seared into your memory. Al Gore won Florida, and then he didn’t, and then George Bush won Florida, and then he didn’t, and we had no idea who the next president would be for several weeks. This was just at the cusp of the internet/cable news era, so pundits kept busy making and pointing to and discussing maps of the states and how Bush or Gore would end up winning this thing. And those maps, in heavy rotation, looked like the maps from election night: Republican red, Democratic blue.

The 2004 Post article by Paul Farhi suggests that “the 2000 election, NBC’s graphics department and David Letterman all played critical roles.” NBC graphics, because that prompted Tim Russert and Matt Lauer to discuss red and blue states shortly before Election Night. David Letterman, because he made one of the early jokes on the subject, while Florida’s votes were still being counted. “The candidates will work out a compromise,” he joked on November 14. “And thank God, not a minute too soon. Here’s how it’s going to go. George W. Bush will be president for the red states. Al W. Gore will be president for the blue states. And that’s — that’s the best they can do.”

Two things are interesting about that. First, that the audience is expected to understand what it means. And second, that Letterman was hardly the first to make the joke. A letter to the editors of the Post on November 11 from Robert Forman made the same proposal, “Why not let Gore be the president of the United States of America to include all the blue states east of the Mississippi? Bush could be the president of the Confederate States of America, to include all the red states on both sides of the Mississippi.” The dichotomy had already set in.

There’s nothing about the color assignations which are unchangeable, of course. We could just as easily use orange and green, but for the fact that red and blue offer much more contrast (and therefore are good for television). There have been complaints, like Clark Bensen of Polidata’s 2004 memo tilting at this color-coded windmill.

But it’s become so familiar that there’s no reason to think it will go away — and in our ever-so-polarized politics, referring to clusters of votes or states with a shorthand is awfully useful. And a large, color-coded map with electoral totals displayed is to election night what the first-down marker and subtle score indicator are to NFL games: Evolutions of informational design that make it easier for enthusiasts to follow along.

When Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968, this is how NBC tallied the results in each state.

Lots of information, but hardly making the most of the medium. And the red check mark is just coincidental. When Hubert Humphrey won a state on rare occasion, his check mark was also red.

Here, go watch old election night footage: NBC, 1960; CBS, 1968; NBC, 1968; ABC, 1972; CBS, 1972; ABC, 1976; NBC, 1976; CBS, 1980; NBC, 1980; CBS, 1984; NBC, 1984; CBS, 1988; ABC, 1992; CBS, 1992; CNN, 1992; CNN, 1996; CNN, 2000; and NBC, 2000.

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