During every election cycle, we hear the terms “red state” and “blue state” over and over again. Why do we have red states and blue states in the first place? What caused these seemingly arbitrary colors to be assigned to states that vote Republican and Democrat? We’re cracking the color code, below.
What It Means to Be Red or Blue
Today, the phrases “red states” and “blue states” refer to states that predominantly vote either Republican or Democrat in major elections. As a result of these labels, the Republican Party is now represented by the color red and the Democratic Party is now represented by the color blue.
Why Do We Have Red States and Blue States?
So, where did these red state and blue state labels even come from? The media. Specifically, television.
In 1976, for the first time, NBC used a large, lighted map to show election results in real time. According to NBC’s election department general manager Roy Wetzel, there were so many bulbs lighting the map that air conditioners had to be brought into the studio to cool things down.
During that first full color, televised election map, Republican candidate Gerald Ford was represented by blue bulbs and Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter was represented by red bulbs.
At the time, not much thought was put into which color would represent which party. The colored bulbs were simply a way to distinguish which states voted which way for the viewing audience. However, historically and throughout the world, blue has tended to represent more conservative groups, while red has been the color of more liberal groups.
The Great Color Swap
Today, we know that red represents Republican states and blue represents Democratic states. So, what happened after that 1976 election?
After that election night coverage from NBC, other networks followed suit and began forming their own full color maps for elections. The problem was that the networks couldn’t seem to agree on a color code. Viewers switching between stations would be confused to see the political parties being represented by different colors.
That all changed during the 2000 Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. That election cycle brought increased interest around the country. Suddenly, conversations revolved around hanging chads, electoral colleges, and swing states. It was time to find a color coding system and stick with it.
Anchors and viewers discussing the election found that interchanging the words “red” and “Republican” felt natural, and that was that. There was finally consistency among news networks, and the red for Republicans, blue for Democrats relationships stuck.
While labeling states as either red or blue is a sweeping generalization, it is helpful when looking at voting trends throughout the country.
What Is a Purple State?
Red, blue, and purple? Not all states are overwhelmingly blue or red, so a third label has popped up in recent years. Purple states are those where Republican and Democratic candidates have an equal chance of winning an election. These are also often referred to as “swing states”.
Whether a state is red, blue, or purple, there is no doubt that color-coded states have become a staple of any major election in the United States.
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