Why Republicans Are Red and Democrats Are Blue

How Colors Got Assigned to America's Political Parties

The colors of these chairs outside a polling place connote Republicans, Democrats and third-party candidates. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News

You've heard the terms red state and blue state. A red state is one that consistently votes Republican in elections for governor and president. A blue state is one that reliably sides with Democrats in those races.

Related Story: Which States Are Swing States?

So why is the color red associated with Republicans? And why is the color blue associated with Democrats?

Here's the story.

First Use of Red State and Blue State 

The first use of the terms red state and blue state came about a week before the 2000 presidential election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, according to The Washington Post's Paul Farhi.

Related Story: List of Meet the Press Moderators

The Post scoured newspaper and magazine archives and television news broadcast transcripts dating back to 1980 for the phrase and found that the first instances could be traced NBC's Today show and subsequent discussions between Matt Lauer and Tim Russert during the election season on MSNBC.

Wrote Farhi:

"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 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.'"

No Consensus on Colors Before 2000

Before the 2000 president election, television networks didn't stick to any particular theme when illustrating which candidates and which parties won which states.

In fact, many rotated the colors: One year Republicans would be red and the next year Republicans would be blue.

According to Smithsonian magazine:

"Before the epic election of 2000, there was no uniformity in the maps that television stations, newspapers or magazines used to illustrate presidential elections. Pretty much everyone embraced red and blue, but which color represented which party varied, sometimes by organization, sometimes by election cycle."

Related Story: What is a Blue Dog Democrat?

Newspapers including The New York Times and USA Today jumped on the Republican-red and Democrat-blue theme that year, too, and stuck with it. Both published color-coded maps of results by county. Counties that sided with Bush appeared red in the newspapers. Counties that voted for Gore were shaded in blue.

The explanation Archie Tse, a senior graphics editor for the Times, gave to Smithsonian for his choice of colors for each party was fairly straightforward:

“I just decided red begins with ‘r,’ Republican begins with ‘r.’ It was a more natural association. There wasn’t much discussion about it.”

The Colors Stuck

The color red has stuck and is now permanently associated with Republicans. Since the 2000 election, for example, the website RedState has become a popular source of news and information for right-leaning readers. RedState describes itself as "the leading conservative, political news blog for right of center activists."

The color blue is now permanently associated with Democrats. The website ActBlue, for example, helps connect political donors to Democratic candidates of their choice and has become a substantial force in how campaigns are financed.

Related Story: Who Pays for Political Campaigns?