Red state, blue state: How colors took sides in politics

For decades, each party simply used a combination of red, white and blue.

When Americans hear some pundits projecting a “blue wave” in the 2018 midterm elections, they understand that this is a prediction of a big Democratic victory. Blue of course symbolizes the Democratic party, while red represents the GOP.

This might seem like a long-standing tradition, but it isn’t.

While writing my forthcoming book “On Color,” I was surprised to discover that this is a recent convention, not some practice with roots dating back to the birth of the two-party system.

Of course, there has always been color-coding in individual political campaigns. But for years, both major parties used the full panoply of American red, white and blue for their own self-identification.

With the spread of color television in the late 1960s, color-coded electoral maps were incorporated into election coverage, but neither red nor blue had been assigned a permanent side.

In Cold War America, networks couldn’t consistently identify one party as “red” – the color of communists and, in particular, the Soviet Union – without being accused of bias. (The color’s connotation was objectionable enough that Cincinnati’s professional baseball team officially changed its nickname from the Reds to the Redlegs between 1953 and 1959.)

So depending on the election or the network, red and blue were variously assigned to Democrats and Republicans. On election night in 1980, when it became clear that Ronald Reagan was going to defeat Jimmy Carter, a television anchor pointed to the color-coded studio map showing the emerging Republican victory and said it was starting to look like “a suburban swimming pool.”

An ocean of blue – for Reagan.

As more states went for Reagan, his campaign workers gleefully began to refer to the increasingly blue map as “Lake Reagan.” Later in the evening, with all the states decided, the…

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