Scribners 1880 Popular Vote Map

Mapping Politics: Democrat Red and Republican Blue

It’s incredibly fascinating how quickly standards can be set, even if they fly in the face of international and American norms. Take for instance, the colors we use to represent Democrats and Republicans. The current standard is that Democrats should be represented by blue and the Republicans should be represented by red. The Democrats even have adopted the blue into their current logo. But the idea of red for Republicans and blue for Democrats is only very recent, and possibly coined by Tim Russert in 2000.

Russert may have been a well-respected newsman, but his color selection was wrong. For one thing, it put the United States at odds with the rest of the world. Elsewhere, blue is traditionally the color of conservatism and red is the traditional color of socialism (yellow is for liberalism). For another, the depiction of Democrats as red and Republicans as blue is very old, possibly the first electoral map displays them this way, as in this 1883 map of the 1880 US Presidential election’s popular vote:

Scribners 1880 Popular Vote Map
Scribners 1880 Popular Vote Map (via Click for higher resolution

The map is fascinating due to its age, but also the sheer amount of data is shows in the very close election between James Garfield and Winfield Scott Hancock, and given its importance in the development of “the Solid South” in presidential elections. The full post from Mapping the Nation is worth the read if you can find the time.

More recently, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections is notable because it uses the same standard of red for Democrats and blue for Republicans. Leip began his work before the news set its standards, and is unwilling to change (he even leaves a note on his webpage explaining why).

I wonder how long it will take before news organizations break the mold and switch up colors, or whether it has gotten too standardized right now.

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