Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, October 3, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 83 • Number 2
Fall 2005

Primary Colors
Red state/blue state labels shade true meaning of the U.S.
By R.O. Palmer '74
I oppose the use of Red State and Blue State as proper nouns. Such pop journalism is lazy and simplifies every state’s diversity. Coloring states has its place—once every four years—but the current media mantra of red state/blue state belongs in Dr. Seuss, not political reporting.

A bit of history: color television begat colored states on election maps. This practice was (and is) an effective means to transmit Electoral College results in a visual medium. Red and blue were logical choices—the two primary colors of the United States flag, colors that contrast well on TV. On each presidential election night in the 1960s, I traced a map of the United States, sharpened red and blue pencils and colored the states along with the networks until I fell asleep. Coloring maps hooked me on politics, connecting me to presidential elections before I was eligible to vote.

Election Day’s color symbolism worked well for decades. Viewers tuned in on election night, watched states turn red or blue, then forgot about colored states for four years. Nobody called any state red or blue.

There is no logic in associating colors with states. Every state has thousands of citizens voting for the other guy—sometimes millions—far too many dissenters to categorize any state.

In this era of catchy one-liners, news organizations routinely classify states as red or blue, as if these colors carry political meaning. Using red and blue in this way stereotypes states, as if every voter in a state thinks and votes the same. The practice of referring to “red states” and “blue states” is shorthand journalism, worse than sound bites, reducing thousands of individuals wrestling with complex issues to a single syllable. The voters of every state deserve more respect than being reduced to a color-coded swatch.

Red-state and blue-state labels imply that there are divisive political differences between people who live in places like South Carolina and New York. The news media push this distinction, because an equally strong majority (58 percent) voted for different candidates in the last presidential election.

But states are not a single voting entity. Individuals enter the voting booth one at a time. In an average sampling of 100 voters in South Carolina and New York, 41 people voted for George W. Bush in each state, 41 for John Kerry, one for Ralph Nader and 17 for the winner. Put another way, 83 percent of South Carolinians and New Yorkers voted the same from state to state. The 17 percent who didn’t represents a lot of people, but 83 percent is almost five times more. That’s really a lot of people painted with cartoonish colors.

Look at a color-coded Electoral College map for the Bush-Kerry election. It is an accurate picture of one thing: who won which states on Nov. 2, 2004. As an indicator of anything more, it is misleading.

The United States is not made up of vast central stretches where everyone voted for Bush. There are no coastal regions where everyone voted for Kerry. Yet the media insist on categorizing states as one color. This does a disservice to the nation, the same way assumptions about color usually do.

I remember when Reds were Communists on the far left of the political spectrum not conservative moralists on the right. States are not black or white, red or blue. If anything, states are multicolored, melting together, united, as in the United States. Emphasizing McLabels undercuts that strength.

A final historical note: In the 1960s, when I was coloring my election-night maps to match the networks’, the Republican states were blue not red. The Democratic states were red not blue. Commentators referred to the blue map, showing the 1984 Republican landslide as Lake Reagan.

Wave a glittering wand and poof: red is blue, black is white. Such deception is for magicians, not the news media. Things so casually manipulated should neither be chosen as significant symbols nor taken seriously when so misused.

Rob Palmer ’74 majored in history and economics. He lives with his wife Sharon in Boonton, N.J., where he is between careers, writing fiction and substituting in the public schools.


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