Red and Blue States

by Katie Uva

CUNY Graduate Center

© Red state, blue state / Angr, 2012 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GFDL

© Red state, blue state / Angr, 2012 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GFDL

The monikers “red states” and “blue states” have become a common way of denoting states that vote Republican and Democratic, respectively, in presidential elections. Although a relatively recent development, the idea quickly took hold in American political culture and became an almost universally agreed-upon concept by the 2004 election. It continues to be a common point of reference in political analysis and reporting.

Prior to the election of 2000, there existed no single way to visually represent election results. Some television news programs alternated colors, or used red for the incumbent regardless of which party he belonged to.1 However, networks most commonly signified a Democratic victory in red and a Republican victory in blue. They derived this in part from standard practice in England, where blue had long been the color of the Conservative Party and red that of the Labour Party. In Europe, generally speaking, people had commonly associated the color red with Leftist movements such as Communism.

This practice underwent a sudden change in the United States during the 2000 election. While some media outlets, like Time magazine and The Washington Post, continued to use blue for Republicans and red for Democrats, most transitioned to red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. Many commentators, echoing The Washington Post, have credited this shift to journalist Tim Russert. In a discussion with Matt Lauer on The Today Show a week before the election, Russert reviewed an electoral map showing projected Democratic victories in blue and Republican victories in red. Although Russert himself denied that this was his invention, he could not recall its origins in his thought.  The idea has thus remained commonly associated with him since its widespread dissemination during the 2000 election.2

Other media outlets, including The New York Times, have also noted that the unique nature of the 2000 presidential election may bear responsibility for Americans thinking so uniformly about the electoral map thereafter. Because the election had been so close, and took so long to be decided, Americans observed weeks of reporting on the election results and sustained exposure to the red and blue electoral maps. Over the course of the weeks following Election Day, media outlets started to standardize this color dynamic.  In effect, the 2000 election’s aftermath “cemented a decision that once could be safely governed by whimsy.”3

If tentative in 2000, the red state-blue state dichotomy had become firmly entrenched by the election of 2004.  Media outlets and politicians alike increasingly invoked it as a symbol of America’s irreparable political division. Polarization, congressional deadlock, lingering resentment over the 2000 election, division on social issues like gay marriage, and enormous rifts surrounding the Iraq War were central issues of the 2004 campaign. Many leaders (John Edwards most prominently) viewed this division as having created “two Americas.”4 America’s deep partisan divide seemed to be reflected in poll numbers during the election cycle, which frequently showed President Bush’s approval rating, support for the Iraq War, and support for John Kerry hovering around 50%.5 Red state-blue state had transcended its utilitarian applications and become a central metaphor for the 2004 campaign season, so much so that the American Dialect Society declared “red state, blue state, purple state” its “Word of the Year.”6

Despite widespread embrace of the red state-blue state concept, some criticized it as an oversimplification. Then-senatorial candidate Barack Obama famously critiqued this framework while delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention of 2004, saying:

The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states—red states for Republicans, and blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states. … We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.7

Ultimately, the election of 2004 simultaneously reflected the rigid red state-blue state electoral division and the importance of the purple, or swing, states. In 2004, Ohio became the decisive swing state, with Bush winning there by a narrow margin of about 118,000 votes.8 The election in Ohio, and other states, demonstrated that although the American public was deeply divided from state to state, those divisions existed within states as well.

1 Ben Zimmer, “Thinking About Tim Russert, Red States and Blue States” Visual Thesaurus June 17, 2008. Accessed May 30, 2014.
2 Paul Farhi, “Elephants are Red, Donkeys are Blue” Washington Post, Nov. 2, 2004.

3 Tom Zeller “One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State” New York Times Feb. 8, 2004.

4 John W. Dean “Understanding the 2004 Presidential Election: Beyond the Polarized Electorate, and the Republicans’ Superior Voter Turnout” Nov. 5, 2004. Accessed June 1, 2014.

5 “Presidential Approval Ratings–George W. Bush” Accessed June 4, 2014.; “Pre-Election Polls Largely Accurate” Nov. 23, 2004. Accessed June 4, 2014. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.; Public Attitudes Toward the War in Iraq: 2003-2008” March 19, 2008. Accessed June 4, 2014. Pew Research Center.

6 “American Dialect Society Words of the Year: 2004” Jan. 7, 2005. Accessed June 1, 2014.

7 “Transcript: Illinois Senate Candidate Barack Obama” July 27, 2004. Accessed May 18, 2014. Washington Post

8 “2004 Election Results” Accessed May 10, 2014.