The Changing US Political Symbolism of Blue and Red
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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