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The origins of red and blue as political colors for Republicans, Democrats

Red. Blue.

They have many associations, but conjure them right now and electoral maps will probably come to mind. You know, the ones designating Republican and Democratic states.

The color coding seems obvious. Red and blue are the colors of the American flag, along with white.

But red and blue, as colors, have a complicated relationship. They, along with yellow, are primary colors from which all others are derived. You see them together on the basic color wheel, neighbors but not necessarily friends.

The color wheel explains how we perceive colors and the feelings we attach to them.

Red is warm, blue is cool.

THE ART OF POLITICS: Read more of our special report on the colors, design, movies, books, fashion and theater connected to the 2016 presidential race.

"Red is passionate," says Jane Doggett, a graphic designer and color-theory expert who designed the blue and red wayfinding system at Tampa International Airport. "It's associated with blood. Also the heart."

"Blue is more calming," says Judith Dazzio, another artist and color-theory expert who is the owner of the Dazzio Art Experience in St. Petersburg.

The colors can be difficult to use together in art because of their high contrast and are, in art parlance, considered noncomplementary.

So is there a special or subliminal meaning to the assignation of red to Republicans and blue to Democrats?


Though there were maps made with colors associated with candidates about 100 years ago, electoral color maps were essentially invented by television networks in the early 1970s after they began broadcasting in color in the 1960s. A popular anecdote about the early maps is of a huge one NBC built of wood and plastic for the 1976 election. It was fitted with thousands of bulbs and when they were all lit, the plastic began to melt. The network had to bring in industrial air conditioners and fans to keep the map cooled down.

There was no consistency for years. Republicans might be blue one year and Democrats red, for example. One network once even switched out red for yellow, perhaps because red had an association with the Communist Party. No one in the television industry gave any thought to the predominant use of red and blue; they were the colors of the flag and provided the high contrast needed on the screen. The public didn't remember which was which from one election cycle to the next.

The fractious 2000 presidential election seems to have cemented the affiliations in the public's mind. George W. Bush and Al Gore were in a race so close — and closely contested — that it took five weeks to determine the winner. During that time, the maps were usually plastered across TV screens and people began to refer routinely to red and blue states, for Republican and Democratic majorities.

When blue and red are mixed, the result is purple. So, of course, purple is used in states that swing back and forth. They're also known as battleground states, which isn't purple's color personality at all. Purple is a harmonious blend that plays well with both its parents.

The parties do not officially embrace their media colors, and some say the color coding is oversimplified.

"Politics is a lot more complicated than primary colors," said Steven Schale, a Democratic strategist. "It's a fiction of the media and reinforces the concept that we're much more divided than we are."

Rick Wilson, a Republican admaker and message strategist, said, "I'm a fan of red. Its visual semiotics are power and intensity. I think blue is cooler, less passionate, more like the Democrats' technocratic approach. But I don't want to put too fine a point on this."

On red and Republicans, Schale said, "There's an element of the Republican Party that tends to have more moral certainty."

In a 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, then-U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama said, "The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states. Red states for Republicans, 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 in our libraries in the red states."

Still, Nancy Reagan was famous for her "Reagan Red" outfits. "I just think she looked good in red," Wilson said.

And Hillary Clinton has shown a preference for blue pantsuits. "I have no inside knowledge," said Schale, "but I just think she likes the color blue."

Red and blue are complicated. But compromise is possible.

"I use blue and red together all the time," Dazzio says. "It depends on the red and blue you use. If one is more neutral, it works. Maybe we should get more people neutralized."

Contact Lennie Bennett at or (727) 893-8293.

The origins of red and blue as political colors for Republicans, Democrats 08/18/16 [Last modified: Thursday, August 18, 2016 12:35pm]
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