The Color of Politics


Maps of the United States divided into red for Republican-won states and blue for Democrat-won states are on all television stations’ coverage of presidential campaigns these days. While it seems like this practice has been around forever, its use by news networks is actually fairly recent; first used with the presidential election of 1976.

NBC, the first all-color television network, created an illuminated map behind anchor John Chancellor to illustrate how each state’s electorate was voting. NBC chose red for Jimmy Carter (Democrat), and blue for Gerald Ford (Republican). Early on, blue was chosen for the Republican Party due to its association with the Union army during the Civil War and the fact that blue was associated with many of the conservative parties in Europe and elsewhere. As color broadcasting expanded to the other major TV networks, each news program chose its own color scheme to illustrate voting results. There was no standard among all networks, however. It was not until the highly contested election of 2000 that red states came to refer exclusively to those voting Republican and blue states to those voting Democrat. It has since become a sort of short hand for partisanship. While this color coding of American politics creates a striking visual for election results, it can have unforeseen negative psychological effects.

Conor Seyle and Matthew Newman published results which explore the ramifications of defining America in terms of red and blue states. While red and blue are meant to refer to the distribution of electoral votes between Republican and Democrat, media pundits have begun to use red and blue to refer to a broad set of differences, including membership in different groups and social categories such as religion, urban or rural living, socioeconomic status and regional culture. Seyle and Newman write that, “By showing all red states, and all blue states, as being parts of the same political cultures, the red versus blue map ignores compelling differences in regional values and concerns about issues that may lead different states to vote Democratic or Republican for different reasons.” The question posed is why does this change in labeling from Republican and Democrat to red and blue create problems? The answer is somewhat complex but can be broken down in this way. The definitions of Republican and Democratic have nothing to do with membership in other groups. They are based solely on political opinions. In contrast, red and blue are used to refer to a large set of shared opinions, group memberships and perspectives. Seyle and Newman write, “As such, describing a person or group as red implies information not only about their stance on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and civil liberties but also about their religious memberships, educational backgrounds, and beliefs about the role of America in the world.” The effect of this paradigm is that it encourages people to see political opponents as opponents in all things, thus encouraging a winner takes all approach to public judgement, rather than working together. This often results in a destructive conflict in which people are less willing to incorporate other perspectives and compromise on a happy medium, thus reducing government efficiency and effectiveness. It would, perhaps, be in the best interest of the public for the media to refrain from utilizing the red and blue labels and simply return to referring to each state by the name of the political party who has won the majority of votes.

Working together, we are united in Red, White and Blue.

For more information about the artifacts pictured above, please visit our previous blog post Red, White, Blue and Fabulous


D. Conor Seyle and Matthew L. Newman, “A House Divided?: The Psychology of Red and Blue America,” American Psychologist 61 (2006):571-580.