Looking Back

When Democrats Turned Blue

by Carol Kammen

Following my April essay describing “When Tompkins County Turned Blue,” County Legislator Mike Lane pointed out that Democrats have not always been represented by the color blue. It reminded me of a time when the Democratic Party was represented by red, the Republicans blue, following the British coding system of blue for conservatives and red for liberals.

So, what happened? It’s complicated. Our flag features both blue and red, but the colors used to represent the major political parties often depended upon who was drawing the map. During the Civil War, a popular map was sold with a blue and a red pencil, allowing the owner to determine the color. But Union troops wore blue uniforms; thereafter that color was generally associated with the Republican Party.

The final determination was not a political choice or a people’s choice, but that of newscasters on television when color TV became popular in the 1950s and 60s.Variously, tv stations portrayed winners in national elections in either blue or red, often switching colors after each election. In 1976, states voting for Jimmy Carter were displayed in red, while Gerald Ford’s wins were blue. In 1996, NBC painted Democratic states blue, while CBS did the opposite. There was no consistency from one channel to the next. One newscaster thought Republican should be red, as they both began with the same letter.

It was the tumultuous 2000 election when blue came to denote the Democratic Party, red the Republicans. The colors were switched even as the parties had also changed their political identities, yet were not in line with the coding in Great Britain.

In 2004, at the Democratic nominating convention, Senator Barack Obama declared that “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.”

Posted in City of Ithaca, Tompkins County, Town of Caroline, Town of Danby, Town of Dryden, Town of Enfield, Town of Groton, Town of Ithaca, Town of Lansing, Town of Newfield, Town of Ulysses.