The Meaning of Red Versus Blue States And Party Identification

Tonight we will see a combination of red and blue states on the maps shown by every network. The identification of red states with Republicans and blue states with Democrats is now firmly established, but it came about by accident. When color television became common the networks would use color coded maps, but before 1976 colors varied as used by different news organizations. In 1976 the networks began to use the same colors. A formula was developed to alternate colors so that neither party would be stuck with one color in case this might give an advantage to one over the other.

Beginning in 1976 the colors alternated based upon incumbent party. In 2000 Democrats were blue as they held the White House, and they were again blue as they were the challengerin2004:

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

Based on this pattern, the Obama and the Democrats should be red as the challengers and the Republicans should be blue this year as the incumbent color. However, since 2000 the identifications based upon color have increasingly been part of the popular culture. In 2004 the colors worked out as expected by those who identified them by party as opposed to following the above schedule. By this year the colors have become so entrenched with their party identities that there could be no consideration of continuing the previous plan of alternating them.

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  1. 1
    Brett says:

    Okay, I see no reason not to believe what you are saying, but as seen in this CBS telecast of the 1984 presidential election,, Reagan and the incumbent party were red, which does not fit into your pattern.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    If so, CBS was not yet aboard and it took longer than 1976 for the colors to be uniform among the networks.

  3. 3
    Brett says:

    I’ve found more. There might not be a map for this clip of the 96 election,, but CNN clearly shows Democrat and incumbent Bill Clinton with the color blue next to his name, and Republican and challenger Bob Dole in red. Which, once again, does not fit into your pattern.

    As for CBS, they did use the blue=challenger, red=incumbent scheme in 1980 as you said all networks did, as evidenced here but obviously that was different just four years later. So maybe they used red for incumbent and blue for challenger.

    Also, further evidence that your model is flawed. ABC used red for the incumbent in 1984, as seen here, while NBC used blue for the incumbent that same year, so I think it’s fair to say that the system was never really locked down as you claim it was.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:


    It does sound like my sources which extended this pattern back further were mistaken and that only some of the networks followed this pattern. I initially heard about this as the reason for the colors in the past two elections and subsequently when searching for more information read claims extending it back as in the table above.

    While some of the past details don’t appear to hold up, the key fact which precipitated this post still does. The red/blue labels for the parties came about largely by accident. A pattern which was not intended to permanently assign a color to either party became part of the popular culture after the formula assigned the same colors in 2000 and 2004.

  5. 5
    Megan says:

    Such and interesting background no matter the exact details. I always wondered!

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