|Just one example of the near ubiquitous 2020 presidential election maps in circulation. Others show Florida and even Texas possibly in play for Democrats.
The Cheeto in Charge seems to be in trouble. It is hard not to gloat just a little—but also dangerous to take July trends for granted in November. His erratic and nonsensical response the Cornoavirus pandemic has blown up in his face as the nation rushes headlong into the worst-case scenario of an out of control plague, People seem to have noticed. His loyal base is beginning to shrink to a dwindling hard core of the deluded and the openly bigoted. Trump’s response is not to reach out to broaden that base, but to whip it up into a frenzy like he did at Mount Rushmore on the Fourth of July in hopes that they will rise up and save his ass from an electoral drubbing.
Key elements of the Democratic base—women by the MeToo movement and reproductive rights, African-American by Black Lives Matter and the Moral Mondays campaign, young voters by March for Our Lives/Vote for Our Lives, the LGBTQ community, Latinos, and climate change activists—have never been more stirred up and motivated to register and vote even if they are otherwise tepid about the presumed party nominee, Joe Biden. The common mantra is Beat Trump and his Republican enablers.
Meanwhile moderate white suburban voters are beginning to stampede for the exits of the collapsing old GOP Big Tent.
All summer long pundits and TV talking heads have been having fun sharing projected November election maps showing most of Trump’s narrowly won battleground states across the Rust Belt and Midwest are now trending Democratic not only at the top of the ticket but deep into down ballot races as well.
These maps raise a question—how did blue become the color of Democrats and red for Republicans? Why do we talk of red states like Alabama or Arizona and blue states like New York and Illinois? After all, neither party ever proclaimed an official color, although come to think of it neither officially adopted elephants and donkeys as mascots, even though they have embraced them and worked them into un-official logos.
The color coding has the feel of long tradition. Red state and blue states are identifying terms bandied about by pundits, talking heads on TV, and social media debaters alike. Everyone knows what is meant with no need of explanation. But contra intuitively it turns out the designations are practically new.
Amateur etymologists have postulated that Democrats got blue for The Bonny Blue Flag, a Scottish Jacobean song which rivaled Dixie as a popular anthem among Confederate troops in the early years of the Civil War. The same faux experts say red comes from the blood of Union soldiers and the Reconstruction Era campaign tactic of Waving the Bloody Shirt to ensure a massive turn-out for Republicans from members of the Grand Army of the Republic in the North. All very logical sounding but total poppycock.
In fact, neither party called dibs on a color and both felt free to use either in posters and campaign materials. Both parties, in the North at least, relied more heavily on the Red, While, and Blue of the national flag than on any component part separately.
|In George Washington's second term his Federalist supporters took to wearing black rossettes inspired by the decoration on the tri-corn hats of Revolutionary War officers.
With a handful of exceptions, American political parties did not much use color coding. In the very early republic Federalists often wore black rosettes on their coats, reminiscent of the decoration on Continental Army officers’ military hats. Democratic-Republicans often wore Tri-color cockades in their hats representative not of the American Flag, but the Revolutionary French Tri-color. These usages disappeared in the first decade of the 19th Century and were not passed on to those parties’ descendants, the Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats.
|Members of the Republican Clubs supporting the French Revolution sported tri-color cockades. The Clubs became the nucleolus of Thomas Jefferson's Democratic Reublican Party.
Green was quite logically used by both the 19th Century Greenbacks and contemporary Green Party. Socialists and Communists embraced the Red Flag, the traditional banner of European revolutionaries and the labor movement since at least 1848.
During the post-World War II Red Scare and McCarthy Era, Republicans tried hard to pin red on squirming Democrats to associate them with alien Communism. Remember how Richard Nixon got his political start printing phony flyers for his incumbent opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas on pink paper? Democrats naturally shied away from using red and most often printed their posters and yard signs in blue, purple, or green if the candidate was Irish or wanted to be mistaken for Irish. Republicans used whatever they damn wanted.
It took the advent of television news, and more specifically color TV to set in motion the events that eventually led to the current assignments.
|The original illuminated election map in 1976 with the NBC election central set, John Chancellor, David Brinkley, and Tom Browkaw.
In 1976 John Chancellor, the anchorman for NBC Nightly News, had network engineers build a large illuminated map for the election-night news studio. If Jimmy Carter, the won a state, it would light up in red; if Gerald Ford, the incumbent Republican president, carried a state, it would light up in blue. The feature proved to be so popular that, four years later, all three major television networks used colors to designate the states won by the presidential candidates on Election Night, though not all using the same color scheme. NBC continued to use the color scheme employed in 1976 for several years. NBC newsman David Brinkley famously referred to the 1980 election map outcome showing Republican Ronald Reagan’s 44-state landslide as resembling a “suburban swimming pool.”
To avoid charges of bias some networks alternated color assignments from Presidential election to Presidential election. Then in 1984, presumably to differentiate themselves from rival NBC, CBS began using blue for Democrats and red for Republicans. Then NBC decided to use blue to represent the incumbent party. Which was why the two dominant news networks both represented Democratic states in blue during the disputed election of 2000 between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush.
|The 2000 NBC election map during the brief period the network called Florida for Democrat Al Gore. All three networks used blue for Democrats that year.
As the results of the election hung in the balance for weeks stretching to months while legal wrangling over disputed Florida ballots wound its way to the Supreme Court, viewers got used to nightly images of blue state/red state election maps. Commentators began to casually talk about red states and blue states. By the time it was all over, it was commonplace.
By the 2004 election the designations were virtually universal. They have persisted as the nation became increasingly polarized.
Lately it has become common for the so-called mainstream media to openly discuss a red/blue civil war, speculation on which was once confined to partisans of the left and right. Some seem to think it might be as neat and sectional as the split in the original Civil War, ignoring the sizable blue cities in the deepest red states and wide rural red swaths in blue strongholds as well as a growing split in suburbia where White men and White women were tending in opposite directions in 2016. Any new Civil War would be very messy indeed.
Civil War aside, it is astonishing to realize that if the red state/blue state code is just 23 years old.