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Average margins of victory in the past five presidential elections.

[[File:Red state, blue state.svg|thumb|300px|Summary of results of the 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008 presidential elections.


Red states and blue states came into use in 2000 to refer to those states of the United Statesmarker whose residents predominantly vote for the Republican Party or Democratic Party presidential candidates, respectively. A blue state tends to vote for the Democratic Party, and a red state tends to vote for the Republican Party, although the colors were often reversed or different colors used before the 2000 election. According to The Washington Post, the terms were coined by television journalist Tim Russert during his televised coverage of the 2000 presidential election; that was not the first election during which the news media used colored maps to graphically depict voter preferences in the various states, but it was the first time a standard color scheme took hold. Since 2000, usage of the term has been expanded to differentiate between states being perceived as liberal and those perceived as conservative.

This unofficial system used in the United States stands in contrast to the system of political colors in most other long-established democracies, where blue represents right-wing and conservative parties, while red represents left-wing and socialist parties.

Origins of current color scheme

Before the 2000 presidential election, there was no universally recognized color scheme to represent political parties in the United States. In fact, the color scheme was often reversed, in line with historical European associations (red was used for left-leaning parties).

There is some historical use of blue for Democrats and red for Republicans: in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Texasmarker county election boards used color coding to help Spanish speakers and illiterates identify the parties; however, this system was not applied consistently in Texas and was not picked up on a national level.

The practice of using colors to represent parties on electoral maps dates back at least as far as 1908, when The New York Times printed a special color map using yellow and blue to detail Theodore Roosevelt's 1904 electoral victory. In the 1950s, color-coding as a format was employed within the Hammond series of historical atlases.

Color-based schemes became more widespread with the adoption of color television in the 1960s and nearly ubiquitous with the advent of color in newspapers. A three-color scheme: red, white and blue, the colors of the U.S. flag, makes sense, as the third color, white, is useful in depicting maps showing states that are "undecided" in the polls and in election-night television coverage.

Early on, some channels used a scheme of red for Democrats and blue for Republicans. The first television news network to use colors to depict the states won by presidential candidates was NBC. In 1976, John Chancellor, the anchorman for the NBC Nightly News, asked his network's engineers to construct a large electronic map of the USA. The map was placed in the network's election-night news studio. If Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate that year, won a state it would light up in red; if Gerald Ford, the Republican, 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 would use colors to designate the states won by the presidential candidates on Election Night. NBC continued to use the color scheme employed in 1976 for several years; NBC newsman David Brinkley famously referred to the 1980 election map as showing Ronald Reagan's 44-state landslide as resembling a "suburban swimming pool". CBS, from 1984 on, used the opposite scheme: blue for Democrats, red for Republicans. ABC used yellow for one major party and blue for the other in 1976. However, in 1980 and 1984, ABC used red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. As late as 1996, there was still no universal association of one color with one party. If anything, by 1996, color schemes were relatively mixed, as CNN, CBS, ABC, and The New York Times referred to Democratic states with the color blue and Republican ones as red, while Time Magazine and the Washington Post used an opposite scheme.

In the days following the protracted 2000 election, major media outlets began conforming to the same color scheme because the electoral map was continually in view and conformity made for easy and instant viewer comprehension. On Election Night that year there was no coordinated effort to code Democratic states blue and Republican states red; the association gradually emerged. Partly as a result of this eventual and near-universal color-coding, the terms "red states" and "blue states" entered popular usage in the weeks following the 2000 presidential election. Journalists began to routinely refer to "blue states" and "red states," even before the 2000 election was settled. After the results were final, journalists stuck with the color scheme, as the December 2001 The Atlantic's cover story by David Brooks entitled, "One Nation, Slightly Divisible" illustrated. Thus, red and blue became fixed in the media and in many people's minds, despite the fact that no "official" color choices had been made by the parties.

Despite the domestic media's adoption of this color scheme, many commentators and journalists still colloquially refer to communists as "reds" (example: "Red China" - meaning Communist China).

Map interpretation problems

are several problems in creating and interpreting election maps that should be taken into account. Popular vote data is necessarily aggregated at several levels, such as counties and states, which are then colored to show election results. Maps of this type are called choropleth maps, which have several well known problems that can result in interpretation bias. One problem arises when areal units differ in size and significance, as is the case with election maps. These maps give extra visual weight to larger areal units, whether by county or state. This problem is compounded in that the units are not equally significant. A large county or state may have fewer voters than a small one, for example. Some maps attempt to account for this by using cartogram methods, but the resulting distortion makes such maps difficult to read.

Another problem relates to data classification. Election maps often use a two-class color scheme (red and blue), which results in a map that is easy to read but is highly generalized. Some maps use more classes, such as shades of red and blue to indicate the degree of election victory. These maps provide a more detailed picture, but have various problems association with classification of data. The cartographer must choose how many classes to use and how to break the data into those classes. While there are various techniques available, the choice is essentially arbitrary. The look of a map can vary significantly depending on the classification choices. The choices of color and shading likewise affect the map's appearance. Further, all election maps are subject to the interpretation error known as the ecological fallacy.

U.S. state legislative lower house majorities as of the 2008 general elections.
(Nebraska, in black, has a unicameral legislature.)
, there are problems associated with human perception. Large areas of color appear more saturated than small areas of the same color. A juxtaposition of differing colors and shades can result in contrast misperceptions. For example, an area shaded light red surrounded by areas shaded dark red will appear even lighter. Differing shades of red and blue compound this problem of perception. Because of this problem, cartographers have traditionally limited the number of classes so that it is always clear which class a color shade represents. Some election maps, however, have broken this tradition by simply coloring each areal unit with a red-blue mixture linked to voting ratio data. These "purple maps" are useful for showing the highly mixed nature of voting, but are extremely difficult to interpret in detail. The lack of clear classes make these purple maps highly prone to the problems of color perception described above. All these points should be taken into account when looking at election maps.


The paradigm has come under criticism on a number of fronts. Many argue that assigning partisanship to states is only really useful as it pertains to the Electoral College, primarily a winner-take-all system of elections (with the exceptions of Nebraska and Maine).

The Republican and Democratic parties within a particular state may have a platform that departs from that of the national party, sometimes leading that state to favor one party in state and local elections and the other in Presidential elections. This is most evident in the Southern United States where the state Democratic parties tend to be more conservative than the national party, especially on social issues. Arkansas and West Virginia were won by George W. Bush in 2004, but Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats and over half of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the Governorships, supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislatures and the majority of elected executive officeholders in those states; similarly, Tennessee went solidly for Bush in both 2000 and 2004, but going into 2004, its Governor was a Democrat and both chambers of the state legislature were controlled by Democrats. The converse can also be true, as in the case of Maine, which has two Republican U.S. Senators but voted for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

Some conservatives have also been wary of using the red state term to describe conservative or Republican-voting electorates, as the term had previously most often been associated with communist states, like the Soviet Unionmarker, Cubamarker, Chinamarker, and East Germanymarker.

In his keynote address before the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama rejected the division of the United States into red states and blue states, saying: "The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states - red states for Republicans, and blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states. ... We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

In April 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain predicted that the 2008 presidential election would not follow the red state/blue state pattern, saying, "I'm not sure that the old red state, blue state scenario that prevailed for the last several elections works. I think most of these states that we have either red or blue are going to be up for grabs." This eventually proved to be true, although not in McCain's favor, as Barack Obama took many "red" states that had not voted Democratic in many years including Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, and others.

Purple States

A purple state refers to a swing state where both Democratic and Republican candidates receive strong support without an overwhelming majority of support for either party. Purple states are also often referred to as battleground states.

The demographic and political applications of the terms have led to a temptation to presume this arbitrary classification is a clear-cut and fundamental cultural division. Given the general nature and common perception of the two parties, "red state" implies a conservative region or a more conservative type of American, and "blue state" implies a liberal region or a more liberal type of American. But the distinction between the two groups of states is hardly so simplistic. The analysis that suggests political, cultural, and demographic differences between the states is more accurate when applied to smaller geographical areas.
Traditionally, the practice of designating a U.S. state as "red" or "blue" is based on the winner-take-all system employed for presidential elections by 48 of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbiamarker. (Electoral law in Maine and Nebraska makes it possible for those states to split their electoral votes; this actually happened for the first time in 2008, when Nebraska's 2nd congressional district assigned its elector to Barack Obama.)

Despite the prevalent winner-take-all practice, the minority always gets a sizeable vote. Because of this, a third term has emerged, referring to these closely-divided states as purple states. Furthermore, it could be argued that all states are "purple" to varying degrees and that the "red vs. blue" division is far from an accurate description of US culture.

All states were consistent in voting for George W. Bush or his opponent in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections except for three: New Mexicomarker (Gore in '00 and Bush in '04), Iowamarker (Gore in '00 and Bush in '04) and New Hampshiremarker (Bush in '00 and Kerry in '04). The 2004 election showed two of these three states to be true to the presidential preferences of their respective regions, creating a greater regional separation; thus, an argument that the country is more divided from the 2000 election. All three of those states were very close in both elections. In 2008 Obama carried Iowa and New Hampshire by more than 9 points, and New Mexico by double digits.


[[File:Cartogram 2008 red blue.png|thumb|300px|Cartogram of Electoral College results (votes as of 2008) of the past four Presidential elections (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008)

The division between red states and blue states has triggered a pronounced introspection among blue staters and red staters. Feelings of cultural and political polarization, which have gained increased media attention since the 2004 election, have led to increased mutual feelings of alienation and enmity. These attitudes have led to the often jocular suggestion that a red state-blue state secession is in order. The Jesusland map is one such joke, a satirical map that redraws the U.S.-Canadamarker border to reflect this sociopolitical schism.

Polarization is more evident on a county scale. Nearly half of U.S. voters resided in counties that voted for Bush or Kerry by 20 percentage points or more in 2004. By comparison, only a quarter of voters lived in such counties in 1976.

The polarization has been present for only two close elections (2000 and 2004). In the 1996 election, 31 U.S. states were "blue" and 19 "red" (though at the time the current color scheme was not as universal as today). One trend that has been true for several election cycles is that states that vote Republican tend to be more rural (thus having fewer electoral votes) than states that vote Democratic.

Viewing the nation as divided into two camps ignores the largest single group of Americans, namely, those who don't vote at all. In the 2000 election only about 54 percent of eligible voters actually turned out to vote. In 2004, despite expensive get-out-the-vote campaigns by both ideological camps, the percentage who voted rose only a few points from the previous election. In fact, in 2004, an all-time record was set when more than 80 million eligible voters failed to vote; this number was far greater than the votes secured by either Bush or Kerry, by a substantial margin.

In fact, no Republican or Democratic nominee has attracted as much as 30 percent of eligible voters since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

The divide

[[File:United States Governors map.svg|thumb|300px|Party control of Governors' offices.]]
Percentage of members of the House of Representatives (as of 2009-01-06) from each party by state.

Although the Electoral College determines the Presidential election, a more precise measure of how the country actually voted may be better represented by either a county-by-county or a district-by-district map. By breaking the map down into smaller units (including many "blue counties" lying next to "red counties"), these maps tend to display many states with a purplish hue, thus demonstrating that an ostensibly "blue" or "red" state may in fact be closely divided. Note that election maps of all kinds are subject to errors of interpretation as described below.

These county-by-county and district-by-district maps reveal that the true nature of the divide is between urban areas/inner suburbs and suburbs/rural areas. For example, in the 2008 elections, even in "solidly blue" states, the majority of voters in most rural counties voted for Republican John McCain, with some exceptions. In "solidly red" states, a majority of voters in most urban counties voted for Democrat Barack Obama, including areas such as Dallas County, Texasmarker and Fulton County, Georgiamarker (the homes of major US cities Dallasmarker and Atlantamarker). Both provided Obama with double-digit margins of victory over McCain. An even more detailed precinct-by-precinct breakdown demonstrates that in many cases, large cities voted for Obama, but their suburbs were divided.

Red states and blue states have several demographic differences from each other. The association between colors and demographics was notably made in a column by Mike Barnicle, and reinforced in a controversial response from Paul Begala (though the association between demographics and voting patterns was well known before that).

In the 2008 elections both parties received at least 40% from all sizable socio-economic demographics, according to exit polling. In 2008, college graduates were split equally; those with postgraduate degrees voted for Obama by a 18% margin. For household income, Obama got a majority of households with less than $50,000 in annual income, and McCain got a majority of households consisting of married couples. McCain held the more suburban and rural areas of both the red and blue states, while Obama received the large majority of the urban city areas in all the states. Ralph Nader did not win any electoral college votes yet received 2% of the vote of voters from high income households and voters with graduate degrees.

Demographic Household income
Under $15k $15k - $30k $30k - $50k $50k - $75k $75k - $100k $100k - $150k $150k - $200k $200k or more
Obama 73% 60% 55% 48% 51% 48% 48% 52%
McCain 25% 37% 43% 49% 48% 51% 50% 46%
Nader 1% 2% 1% 0% 1% 1% 0% 1%
Percent of voters 6% 12% 19% 21% 15% 14% 6% 6%
Demographic Educational attainment   Marital Status
No High School High School Some College College Graduate Postgraduate Education Single Married
Obama 63% 52% 51% 50% 58% N/A N/A
McCain 35% 46% 47% 48% 40% N/A N/A
Nader 0% 1% 1% 1% 1% N/A N/A
Percent of voters 4% 20% 31% 28% 17% N/A N/A

Demographic Vote by Race Type of Community Ideology
White Black Latino Asian Other Big Cities Suburbs Rural Liberal Moderate Conservative
Obama 43% 95% 67% 62% 66% 63% 50% 45% 89% 60% 20%
McCain 55% 4% 31% 35% 31% 35% 48% 53% 10% 39% 78%
Nader 0% 0% 2% * 2% * 0% 0% 1% 1% 1%
Percent of voters 74% 13% 9% 2% 3% 30% 49% 21% 22% 44% 34%

SOURCE: CNN Exit polls 13,660 surveyed

In terms of age, gender and marital status, it's thought young adults under age 30 and the age group between 30 to 40 went for Obama. That more married men voted for McCain, but more single men voted for Obama. Same went to women, but a higher percentage of women voted for Obama than McCain. The main constituency for McCain are white middle-aged married males, as well in terms of religion: Protestant Christians were more likely to vote for McCain than Obama. A higher rate of secular, Catholic and other religious votes went for Obama.



The choice of colors in this divide appears counter-intuitive to many observers, as in many countries, red is often associated with left-of-center parties, while blue is used to depict conservative parties. For example, in Canadamarker party colors are deeply ingrained and historic and have been unchanged since the late nineteenth century. The Liberal Party of Canada has long used red and the Conservative Party of Canada has long used blue, and in fact the phrases Liberal red and Tory blue are a part of the national lexicon, as is Red Tory, denoting Conservative members who are social moderates. Similarly, the symbol of the United Kingdom's Labour Party is a red rose (and the socialist song "The Red Flag" is still sung at party conferences), while the UK Conservatives have traditionally used the color blue. If the US followed such a pattern, blue would be used for the Republicans and red for the Democrats. However, the current US scheme has become so ingrained in the American election system that foreign sources who cover US elections, such as the BBC, Der Spiegel and El Mundo follow with the red-Republican, blue-Democratic scheme for US elections.

United States

While the "Democratic blue" and "Republican red" color scheme is now part of the lexicon of American journalism, neither national committee of the parties has officially accepted these color designations.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made use of the color scheme when it launched a national "Red to Blue Program" in 2006. Otherwise the color scheme is unofficial and informal but is widely recognized by media and commentators. Partisan supporters now often use the colors for promotional materials and campaign merchandise.

The scheme has found acceptance and implementation from the U.S. Federal Government, as the Federal Elections Commission report for the 2004 presidential Election uses the red-Republican, blue-Democratic scheme for its electoral map.

Current classification

The following classification of red and blue states (as well as purple/battleground states) was determined by compiling the average margins of victory in the last five presidential elections. Three of these past five elections were won by Democrats (Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and Barack Obama in 2008) while two were won by Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

Red States

Blue States

Purple States

See also


  1. Washington Post, 2004-11-02 (accessed 2008-11-25).
  2. Polidata (accessed 2008-11-25).
  4. July 26, 1908, 100 Years Ago Today by Frank Herron
  5. Ideas & Trends; One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State - New York Times
  6. Cool Blue Reason
  8. Those Special Election Bells, Whistles and, Yes, Some Numbers, Too - New York Times
  9. A Divided Government Remains, and With It the Prospect of Further Combat - New York Times
  11. ;,
  14. Bbc News
  15. Amerika wählt - SPIEGEL ONLINE - Nachrichten
  16. | ELECCIONES EEUU 2004
  18. Federal Elections 2004

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