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Red State Blue State

September 26, 2012

By Hugh Rawson

Now that the national political conventions are over, and the candidates of the two major parties officially selected, the interminable campaign for the American presidency is heading into the home stretch, where all eyes are focused on election maps composed of red states, meaning basically Republican states, and blue states, referring to Democratic ones.

The firm association of red with Republican and blue with Democratic is comparatively new in American politics, dating only to the election of 2000. Previously, different publications and TV stations used different color schemes on election maps. Yellow and green were sometimes employed, while red and blue often had opposite meanings from today. For example, in 1980, TV newsman David Brinkley described the many blue-colored states on a map that portrayed Republican Ronald Reagan’s overwhelming victory as “beginning to look like a suburban swimming pool.”  And in 1992, anticipating Democrat Bill Clinton’s triumph over Republican George H. W. Bush, a Boston Globe columnist wrote: “But when the anchormen turn to their electronic tote boards and the red states for Clinton start swamping the blue states for Bush, this will be a strange night for me.”

The present party affiliations of red and blue were popularized by TV journalist Tim Russert on NBC-TV. During election-night coverage in 2000, red state and blue state were used so often in place of Republican and Democrat that the political commentator and lexicographer, William Safire, who served as an analyst on the show, recalled in his Political Dictionary (2008) that he felt sorry for viewers who had only black-and-white television sets.

Most media outlets soon adopted the same red-blue scheme, which probably was reinforced in the public mind by the way the two colors formed distinct blocks on election maps – red in the southern and middle portions of the nation; blue on the west coast, upper midwest, and northeast – and by their relative stability in later elections. Only three states switched colors in the presidential election of 2004 and the pattern remained similar in 2008, red in the middle of the country and blue on the coasts. (The use of red for Republican is mildly ironic, considering that red has been associated historically with radicalism in general and Communism in particular.)  The basic color alignments and the effects of any state switches are demonstrated most dramatically by CNN’s “Magic Map,” used since 2008 by correspondent John King to display voting totals and projections on a large touch-screen monitor.

The balance between red and blue on election maps is all-important because of the existence of the Electoral College, a Constitutional appendix that the United States might well do without. For the benefit of those readers who never sat through a 9th-grade Civics Class, or fell asleep when they did:

The Electoral College represents one of the many compromises made by the nation’s founding fathers (the founders or framers as they are often called nowadays in politically correct, gender-neutral form). Instead of having the president and vice president elected either by congress or directly by the people, the Constitution specifies that the voters in each state should choose members of the Electoral College, who, in turn, elect the president and vice president. The Electoral College now has 538 members, with each of the fifty states having as many electors as in its congressional delegation (two senators plus the number of its representatives in the House), while the District of Columbia has three electors. Thus, a candidate must amass at least 270 votes in the Electoral College in order to win the presidency.

This is a cumbersome process and potentially undemocratic as well. Because whichever candidate receives the most votes at the polls gets all that state’s electoral votes (only Maine and Nebraska split their electoral votes), and because some states may be won by large majorities and others more narrowly, the person who receives the largest popular vote may not win in the Electoral College. This has happened several times, most recently in 2000 when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore.

The political blocks of red and blue hide important differences. The red states tend to be more rural, the blue states to be more urban. Within states, the same distinction holds. Thus, a finer-grade map of Pennsylvania, a blue state in recent elections, would show large areas of red between the blue cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. In blue New York, much of the upper, more rural part of the state is actually red. Texas, a red state, has blotches of blue in Austin, San Antonio, and other cities.

More broadly, red and blue have come to stand for social as well as political differences. Thus, New York Times columnist Frank Rich concluded in 2004 that “it’s blue America, not red, that is inexorably winning the culture war.” The differences between conservative-leaning red and more liberal blue show up in many ways.  Some of them were noted by Jean Chatzky, financial editor on NBC’s Today Show, in her blog post about credit scores on the Daily Finance website on Mar. 19 of this year: “Blue states, for example, have higher average gas prices – but because red state citizens own less-efficient vehicles and drive them more, high gas prices are hurting them to a greater degree. The states with the most teenage pregnancies are mostly among the conservative red, whereas those with the least are mostly blue. And when it comes to credit scores, blue states are where the smart money is.”

If you mix red and blue, you get purple, which politically speaking, refers to a state that might vote either way, as in “Michigan is a purple state – the electorate is pretty evenly split between the two major political parties” (Traverse City Record-Eagle, Feb. 12, 2011), or, the rhetorical question posed in the headline for an Associate Press report on Colorado “Will Colo. economy turn purple state red or blue?” (July 21, 2012).

The purple states, also known as the battleground or swing states, are the key to the 2012 election. Different political observers produce different lists of the centrist states depending on shifting poll results and their personal biases, but the most commonly mentioned are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. It is in these states that the candidates are spending almost all their time and money in order to transform purple into red or blue.

Stay tuned.

6 comments

  1. My favorite riff on the “red/blue” dichotomy came from Maureen Dowd, a liberal columnist at the New York Times, who dubbed New York “indigo city,” given its strong leftist politics.


    • Maureen Dowd has a well developed sense of color. Referring to ultra-conservative members of her family in a 2004 column, she said “They’re beyond red — more like crimson.” And she may be liberal, but she is quick to take potshots at targets that present themselves, whether left or right. I’ll never forget her take-down of President Bill Clinton when he visited Oxford in 1994. Her account — and this was written as a reporter, before she became a columnist — led off with this sentence: “President Clinton returned today for a sentimental journey to the university where he didn’t inhale, didn’t get drafted and didn’t get a degree.” That’s pretty hard to beat. As for “leftist” New York, remember that Michael Bloomberg, the city’s mayor for the past decade, has been elected on the Republican and Independent lines, not as a Democrat!


  2. Red, blue, whatever hue (no pun intended), politics is a muddy business, i.e., clear as mud. Nonetheless, I have learnt much from your article and enjoyed your flawless prose.


    • If I could write in Spanish half as well as you write in English, I’d be very pleased with myself!


      • Use a translator app. Usually free!


  3. From “UsingEnglish.com”.

    Idiom Definitions for ‘Reds under the bed’
    “An ironic allusion to the obsession some people
    have that there are reds (communists) everywhere
    plotting violent revolution.”



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