The Changing US Political Symbolism of Blue and Red

By Maeve Maddox

In British politics, blue is associated with Britain’s conservative party, the Tories, whereas red is associated with the Labour Party.

The same association of blue with political conservatism was once common in US politics, but now red is associated with the conservative party.

This change became fixed following the presidential election of 2000. The reversal was driven by the use of colored maps to track election returns in the media.

The first giant election map was introduced by NBC television in 1976. States in which the majority voted for the Republican candidate (Gerald Ford) were lighted in blue. States in which the vote went to the Democratic candidate (Jimmy Carter) were lighted in red.

In 1980, both NBC and CBS used red for Carter (D) and blue for Reagan (R), but ABC, to the confusion of channel-switching viewers, used blue for Carter and red for Reagan.

In 1984, ABC and CBS used red for Republicans and blue for Democrats, but NBC retained blue for Republicans and red for Democrats.

NBC consistently used blue for Republicans and red for Democrats from 1976 to 1988, the period during which Roy Wetzel was the general manager of NBC’s election unit. Whereas the other networks seemed to have used the colors arbitrarily, Wetzel gave a reason for his consistency:

“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. And that settled it.” —“When Republicans Were Blue and Democrats Were Red,” Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 31, 2012.

Note: Graphics in British newspapers usually assign blue to Conservatives, red to Labour, and yellow to Liberal Democrats.

In 2000, two of the networks, ABC and NBC, used red for Republicans and blue for Democrats on their election maps. NBC’s election chief, Tim Russert, is credited with popularizing the phrases “red states” and “blue states.”

Reinforcing the red/blue associations in 2000 were two newspaper maps that came out two days after the disputed election. The New York Times and USA Today both published color-coded maps that assigned red to Bush and blue to Gore.

By the time the next presidential election rolled around in 2004, all three networks had adopted the imagery of red for Republican and blue for Democrat.

The terms “red states” and “blue states” are now common in American political discourse:

While the Republican Party is poised to make major gains in red states in the battle for the U.S. Senate, the situation is flipped in governors’ races, where Republicans are facing a tough time defending chief executives who won office in blue states in the Obama backlash of 2010.—The Washington Times.

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7 Responses to “The Changing US Political Symbolism of Blue and Red”

  • John

    I’ve never understood such a color switch. Moreover, the red one has always been seen as a “communist color” 🙂

  • Cygnifier

    Thanks for this informative history of the blue/red terms.

  • Michael W. Perry

    The reason for this switch is obvious. The upper levels of ABC/CBS/NBC are heavily Democratic (think 98%). They must have believed that making Republicans “red” (note parallel to communism) would make Republicans seem scary, a common theme in network news.

    Color those executives stupid. Their idea backfired. In politics, red is associated with change. Groups that want to shake up the system use a lot of red in their symbols, while those defending the status quo typically opt for milder colors or a mixture of colors.

    That explains why Republicans and conservatives were quite happy to adopt the change. In an era when the public is increasing fed up with government, being red is good.

    It also doesn’t hurt that red states such as Texas are booming while the blue states, such as California, Illinois and New York, are blue in the sense of having depressed economies and huge gaps between the rich and poor.

    It’s also a factor in the dramatic shift in American politics since 2008. At the local, state and national level, the Republicans now dominate politics to a greater extent than at any time since the 1920s.

    That shift in colors isn’t even close to being the primary reasons for this shift, but it is a factor.

  • Mike Rose

    “In politics, red is associated with change.” You mean like the Nazi flag? Can you tell us how the color red is used by groups who wish to “shake up the system” here in the United States? Can you please specifically cite some of those groups? Perhaps you could also cite some examples of groups who “defend the status quo” and the “milder” colors these groups have chosen. If possible, could you also define the differences between red and these “milder” colors? For example, is green “milder” than red or are you saying pink is “milder” than red, even if that pink is vivid?

    What of the Gay Pride rainbow flag? What subliminal message is that sending to the populace, given that it is a mix of many colors and does, in fact, contain red? The colors in that flag in particular do not seem to have a “mild” component to them. They are all the same vibrancy.

    The logos used for any and all political candidates always include both red and blue, of course. Obama’s campaign logo, with “change” as the primary buzz word, certainly used red.

    Now, you state that the reason for this switch is “obvious” and purport that television executives are “98% Democratic” and that they “must have believed” using red would help associated Republicans with Communists. Could you please provide any statistics at all to back up these statements? Any at all. “Must have” is an assumption and I do tend to have a soft spot in my heart for cold, hard facts over assumptions.

    Of course, given the fact that there was standard color assignment adopted and agreed upon by broadcasters and journalists as explained in the article here (and as is well known by most Americans as common knowledge of this event), leads back to the fact that at one point, Democrats were represented by red and Republicans by blue. So those same network executives who are being accused of playing games of psychological warfare on the viewing public had, at first and in some cases, decided that Democrats were red. So at that time, according to this theory, those executives must have deviously wanted the Democrats to be associated with Communism.

    I take from this that you are saying one of the reasons why Republicans are so powerful (?) today is because of the help network executives gave them by assigning them the color red. I also take from this that it is pleasing to you to believe that the deception you imagine the executives perpetrated has now “backfired.”

    There’s a lot of relativism and supposition in all of this. Not too many facts, unfortunately.

    The informational post from Maeve is accurate. I appreciate that she left out presumptive conspiracy theories.

  • thebluebird11

    <–(obviously a non-intellectual, apolitical bird-brain)
    OMG I'm lucky if I remember to grab my house keys and a soda on my way out of the house…do you think I will retain any of this info?! Helllll no! But it's nice to know it's available and that SOMEbody knows what is going on. Thank you, I will flag down a spaceship and return to Oblivion now…carry on…

  • venqax

    It is true that the color red was adopted by the international communist movement. It is also true that red has represented many other things in political heraldry, many way before communism emerged (like plain old blood, for one, which has been sacrificed by pretty much every country and persuasion over the centuries in ways they, at least, deem heroic.) It is also true that in Europe political colors have been traditional and often formally assigned parts of the political spectrum– red for socialists, blue for conservatives, yellow for liberals or libertarians, etc. So it would make “sense” for Republicans to be blue and Democrats to be red in the USA– IF the USA was in Europe. But it’s not. At all. America has its own political system and traditions, only slimmly related to Europe’s nowadays, and there really have not been any colors associated with parties or ideologies in the US other than the red, white and blue claimed by everyone, cf. the DP and GOP party logos. It just so happens that during the 2000 elections, red and blue got assigned to R and D states respectively for TV election maps, and color-themed terms stuck. It just as easily could have been the other way around (as it was on some networks and in different elections). Red and blue are the 2 “choices” because they come from the flag (probably) but more importantly because they contrast and televise well.

    Interesting aside; I’m told by techie types that red and green, or orange and purple could work as well except that the yellow you need for green, orange, etc is somewhat problematic for TV. So red and blue may be patriotic but they are also the 2 “best” TV colors. Just passing that along, can’t evaluate it.

  • venqax

    Should have said …”cf DP and GOP logos traditionally.” Since 2000 they have both adopted to the red/blue popular images as well, but they are the results not the causes of the 2000-election maps.

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