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Elephants are red, donkeys are blue

Red and blue are more than just the conveniently contrasting colors of political graphics on TV. They've become shorthand for an entire sociopolitical worldview. So how did this happen?
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Tonight, as the results of this too-close-to-call election trickle in, voters will find out not just who they've chosen to lead them, but where they live — in "red" or "blue" America.

The TV networks' electoral maps will turn red once again when President Bush wins a state, and blue when John Kerry claims one. The evening's talk will likely break along red and blue lines. DanPeterTom will discuss which states might go red, which are trending blue, and which, depending on their ultimate chromatic disposition, could decide the election.

Red and blue, of course, have become more than just the conveniently contrasting colors of TV graphics. They've become shorthand for an entire sociopolitical worldview. A "red state" bespeaks not just a Republican majority but an entire geography (rectangular borders in the country's midsection), an iconography (Bush in a cowboy hat), and a series of cultural cliches (churches and NASCAR). "Blue states" suggest something on, and of, the coastal extremes, urban and latte-drinking. Red states — to reduce the stereotypes to an even more vulgar level — are a little bit country, blues are a little more rock-and-roll.

How has it come to this? What cosmic decorator did the states' colors, reducing a continental nation's complicated political and cultural realities to a two-tone palette?

The answers are somewhat murky — we may have to wait for a recount to be sure — but it appears the 2000 election, NBC's graphics department and David Letterman all played critical roles.

Muddled colors
Before Bush's disputed victory over Al Gore four years ago, there was no consensus on the color of liberalism or conservatism. Indeed the scheme was often reversed, reflecting traditional European associations (red being not just the color of communism but of Great Britain's Labor Party, too).

In 1976, NBC identified states won by Gerald Ford in blue and Jimmy Carter's states in red. On election night in 1980, ABC News showed Ronald Reagan's march to the White House as a series of blue lights on a map, with Carter's states in red. Time magazine assigned red to the Democrats and blue to the Republicans in its election graphics in every election from 1988 to 2000. The Washington Post's election graphics for the 2000 election were Republican-blue, Democrat-red.

The first reference to "red states" and "blue states," according to a database search of newspapers, magazines and TV news transcripts since 1980, occurred on NBC's "Today" show about a week before the 2000 election. Matt Lauer and Tim Russert discussed the projected alignment of the states, using a map and a color scheme that had first shown up a few days earlier on NBC's sister cable network, MSNBC. "So how does [Bush] get those remaining 61 electoral red states, if you will?" Russert asked at one point.

In an interview yesterday, Russert disclaimed credit for coining the red-state, blue-state distinction. "I'm sure I wasn't the first to come up with it," he said. "But I will take credit for the white board," Russert's signature, hands-on electoral vote tracker.

As the 2000 election became a 36-day recount debacle, the commentariat magically reached consensus on the proper colors. Newspapers began discussing the race in the larger, abstract context of red vs. blue. The deal may have been sealed when Letterman suggested a week after the vote that a compromise would "make George W. Bush president of the red states and Al Gore head of the blue ones."

All of this doesn't answer two fundamental questions: Why red? Why blue?

Limited palette
Stephen Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, points to the obvious association with the American flag. He adds that those colors look good on a TV screen, too.

Besides, other combinations wouldn't work. We've already tried blue and gray, and we know how that ended up. It would be wrong, for obvious reasons, to divide the country into "black" states and "white" states. And it just wouldn't look right to pick a more out-there palette, such as taupe-teal or puce-mauve.

Some conspiracy-mind Republicans resent being colored red because that hue tends to be associated with negative traits (fiery, bloody, hot, red-in-the-face), although red is also associated with love. Blue, meanwhile, is peaceful and tranquil, the color of sky and water, but it's also the color of cold and depression.

The real problem may lie in the superficial caricatures that the colors conjure. Is it really accurate, after all, to describe New Mexico as a "blue" state when Gore won it by just 366 votes in 2000? In California — a state so blue that neither of the two leading candidates bothered campaigning much there this year — voters have in recent years approved initiatives repealing racial preferences and bilingual education, and have ousted a Democratic governor in favor of a Republican. Ohio — historically a red state — is close enough that Kerry might eke out a narrow victory, but it is also poised to pass overwhelmingly a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

The whole red-blue division got an eloquent rebuke at the Democratic National Convention this summer, when Senate candidate Barack Obama told the cheering crowd, "We coach Little League in blue states and we have gay friends in red states. We pray to an awesome God in blue states and we don't like federal agents sniffing around our libraries in red states."

Red? Blue? In roses and violets maybe, but politics and culture come in many hues, and many of them clash.