Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Thinking about Tim Russert, Red States and Blue States

The untimely passing of Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press, has led many to reminisce about his lasting influence on political reporting. Some obituaries mentioned that Russert has been credited with popularizing the terms "red state" and "blue state," to refer to states favoring Republican or Democratic candidates. Though Russert's memorable analysis of the twists and turns of the 2000 presidential election no doubt played a significant role in popularizing the "red/blue state" designations, the history of the color coding is surprisingly complicated.

The idea of assigning colors to Republicans and Democrats has been around for more than a century, though the red-blue color scheme has only been fixed relatively recently. Back in 1900, the Chicago Tribune, then a Republican organ, made plans to signal returns on election night by setting off colored fireworks that would be visible around the city. Republican wins would be signaled by blue fireworks and Democratic wins by red fireworks. The Tribune ended up dropping the plan after a Democratic newspaper said they would announce returns using fireworks the opposite color-coding. It seems that each party organ wanted to claim to be "blue" and paint the other party as "red." The Tribune was following contemporary European usage, where blue often meant right-leaning and red left-leaning. Democrats may have wanted to appropriate the positive connotations of blue (as in true-blue) at a time when red was becoming associated with revolutionaries and anarchists.

The earliest example I've been able to find of an electoral map showing Republican-leaning states as red and Democratic-leaning states in blue appeared in a color supplement to the Washington Post in July 1908, during the presidential campaign between William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan. Along with the red states and blue states, "doubtful" states were shown in yellow, and territories, which had no presidential vote, were shown in green. But that color arrangement was by no means the only one used by subsequent newspapers and magazines printing colored political maps.

With the advent of color television, television news reporters have greatly relied on color-coded electoral maps during coverage of presidential election returns every four years. As Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly explained in 2004, the networks arrived at a formula for assigning colors to political parties for election-night coverage so that there would be no perception of favoritism in the color coding. Since 1976, the color of the incumbent party has alternated:


Year

Incumbent
Party

Incumbent
Color

Challenger
Color

1976

Republican

Blue = Ford

Red = Carter

1980

Democratic

Red = Carter

Blue = Reagan

1984

Republican

Blue = Reagan

Red = Mondale

1988

Republican

Red = Bush

Blue = Dukakis

1992

Republican

Blue = Bush

Red = Clinton

1996

Democratic

Red = Clinton

Blue = Dole

2000

Democratic

Blue = Gore

Red = Bush

2004

Republican

Red = Bush

Blue = Kerry

Because of this system, it just so happens that Democrats were assigned the color red and Republicans blue five out of six times between 1976 and 1996. But 2000 and 2004 had blue for Democrats and red for Republicans, and those have been the election years in which the "red state" vs. "blue state" distinction has been popularized.

When the Washington Post investigated the origins of the "red/blue state" phenomenon, they gave Tim Russert credit for first using it on television in 2000. On NBC's "Today" show, about a week before the general election, Russert discussed projections with the host Matt Lauer using a color-coded map. Russert asked aloud how George W. Bush would "get those remaining 61 electoral red states, if you will?" Russert, for his part, didn't think he was the original coiner. But as William Safire describes in the new edition of his Political Dictionary, Russert was "the leading popularizer as the blue-Democrat, red-Republican assignment took hold nationally" on the topsy-turvy election night of 2000.

By 2004, "red states" and "blue states," along with toss-up "purple states," became firmly entrenched in political parlance, so much so that the American Dialect Society selected red/blue/purple state as their Word of the Year. (Of course, that's more than one word, but as Jesse Sheidlower explained in Slate, it's a lot easier to talk about "Word of the Year" than "Lexical Item of the Year.") In Sen. Barack Obama's famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he questioned the assumptions about a divide between conservative "red states" and liberal "blue states": "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."

This year it looks like the networks and other news outlets have abandoned the old color-switching formula, since the system would assign blue to incumbent Republicans and red to the Democrats. (See, for instance, the online electoral maps from ABC, CNN, the New York Times, which all use the blue-for-Dem, red-for-GOP coding.) The whole "red/blue state" concept is so embedded in our political consciousness now that people would simply be confused to see maps colored the other way. Sadly, for the 2008 election cycle, we won't have Tim Russert and his inimitable whiteboard talking about red and blue states, but his presence will continue to be felt in newsrooms around the country.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 17th 2008, 3:37 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
It may surprise some of your readers (and writers) to know that in Canada, your neighbour to the north, we also think of the Conservative party as "blue" and the Librals as "red", with the New Democratic Party, which a bit more left leaning, as "orange".

I have always found this strange; when Pierre Elliot Trudeau was running for Prime Minister for the Liberal Party in 1968 all his campaign workers wore orange. The girls (and I was one of them) were quite shocking in their orange mini-dresses. I never did figure out how the NDP finally inherited this colour.
Tuesday June 17th 2008, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Louis E.
Great article, Ben. Thank you! Note: In the parenthetical in the last paragraph, I think you meant to say "blue-for-Dem, red-for-GOP coding" rather than "red-for-Dem, blue-for-GOP coding".
Tuesday June 17th 2008, 10:22 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Thanks for the catch, Louis. I've corrected the article.
Tuesday June 17th 2008, 4:50 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
This was a quite informative piece, Ben. Thank you. Prior to your article, I had made the false assumption that the colors were linked to the respective party's psychographic composition.

I find it odd/interesting that even though I've been through many election cycles in my life, I would have a hard time today thinking of the Democratic candidate pining for the red-coded states on a map.

This depth of symbolic conditioning, I suppose, was one of Tim's geniuses -- the ability to distill and frame things that were bite-sized yet informative, and make it stick through the use of symbols. This was just one of many unique skills and talents that I think will be missed -- and not readily replaced -- in mainstream American political discourse.

Too often in mass media, it seems we are given the choice between over-simplification (which electrifies but does not inform) and wonky discourse (which aims to inform, but tends to only attract the already-informed). Tim seemed to establish something in between these two models of political media coverage.

The red state/blue state stickiness is just one of many examples where Tim used symbols to introduce a political frame to the nation. With communications talents like these, it may have been expedient for Tim to use these skills to advance a political ideology. Yet, Tim chose to advance a journalistic ideology of holding our leaders accountable for what they said, as well as what they meant, and making sure the results were accessible and meaningful to the masses.

As we analyze Tim's success as a news professional, I hope that his colleagues (and the news industry in general) come to see that playing it "down the middle" with the utmost integrity can not only power a successful career, but can also lead to being earnestly revered in the context of one's legacy.

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