RED STATE, BLUE STATE….My friend Professor Marc just asked me where the terms “red state” and “blue state” came from. I provided the nickel explanation (it’s derived from the electoral map of the 2000 election), but added that there were some oddities about the whole thing that I myself didn’t understand.

So I hopped over to Nexis and did a search going back 20 years for every story that included both the phrase “red state” and “blue state.” Here’s what I found:

  • The first print usage I uncovered was by David Nyhan in the Boston Globe on October 15, 1992: “But when the anchormen turn to their electronic tote boards election night and the red states for Clinton start swamping the blue states for Bush, this will be a strange night for me.”

  • Note that in Nyhan’s column, he refers to red states as Democratic states and blue states as Republican states ? just the opposite of current usage. As the Washington Post explained a few days ago:

    In 1976, NBC identified states won by Gerald Ford in blue and Jimmy Carter’s states in red. On election night in 1980, ABC News showed Ronald Reagan’s march to the White House as a series of blue lights on a map, with Carter’s states in red. Time magazine assigned red to the Democrats and blue to the Republicans in its election graphics in every election from 1988 to 2000. The Washington Post’s election graphics for the 2000 election were Republican-blue, Democrat-red.

    Although there was never any kind of consensus on this, prior to 2000 it was more common to associate red with Democrats and blue with Republicans.

  • Astonishingly enough ? at least in the sources indexed by Nexis ? there is only one other reference to red and blue states in the U.S. print media for the entire rest of the decade (although the electoral maps themselves continued to be color coded, of course).

  • In the 2000 election, NBC, CBS, CNN, and USA Today all coded their maps blue for Gore and red for Bush (I couldn’t find a reference for either ABC or Fox). Why the color switch from 1996, when Clinton states were generally colored red? Beats me. (UPDATE: Answer here!)

  • So how did red and blue then get cemented permanently into place? The Post article takes the following stab at explaining it:

    As the 2000 election became a 36-day recount debacle, the commentariat magically reached consensus on the proper colors. Newspapers began discussing the race in the larger, abstract context of red vs. blue. The deal may have been sealed when [David] Letterman suggested a week after the vote that a compromise would “make George W. Bush president of the red states and Al Gore head of the blue ones.”

    Maybe. My guess is that it had more to do with the fact that most of the networks ? and it’s the networks that really count for visual stuff like this, not the print media ? happened to color their maps the same way in 2000: blue for Gore, red for Bush. Letterman’s comment got quoted a lot, but it’s not clear that it really had much impact on the whole red/blue thing.

But now for the real question: how is it that red states and blue states became iconic? After all, previous elections also had electoral maps, but they didn’t become cultural touchstones. Why did it happen this time? And who was the first person to use these terms as cultural shorthand, not merely as references to a map? I can’t say for sure, but here are a few guesses:

  • The 2000 map was geographically more striking than in previous years. Bush won a huge contiguous region that included the South, Midwest, and Mountain States, and the starkness of the divide combined with the razor closeness of the “50-50 America” election made the map more memorable than in the past.

  • Because of the Florida recount fiasco, the electoral map was on television screens for over a month. Usually we see it for a day or two and then it’s gone.

  • Letterman may have helped the red/blue dichotomy achieve its iconic cultural status, but as prime movers I’ll nominate Mike Barnicle and Paul Begala. Shortly after the election, Barnicle held up the electoral map on MSNBC and described its swaths of color as representing “family values versus a sense of entitlement.” A few days later Begala responded with a fiery column pointing out that:

    The state where an Army private who was thought to be gay was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, and the state where neo-Nazi skinheads murdered two African-Americans because of their skin color, and the state where Bob Jones University spews its anti-Catholic bigotry: they?re all red too.

    All hell broke loose after that and red and blue quickly became entrenched as emblems of the “two Americas.” Cathy Young, though dissenting from the two Americas thesis itself, described a bit more about its evolution in this Reason article from March 2001.

So there you have it. If anyone has further details to offer (for example, evidence of how ABC and Fox colored their 2000 maps), comments are open.