Red State Blue State
When did primary colors invade politics? NBC, the first television channel with color (Remember the expanding wings of the peacock?) wanted to show off their Crayola colors on a massive wall behind their newsmen (and newswoman Jessica Savage) in 1976. The authoritative voice of John Chancellor and much younger sidekick Tom Browkaw explained states tinted blue were for incumbent Representative Gerald Ford, while Jimmy Carter’s states would display in red. (Ron Elving, “The Color of Politics: How did Red and Blue States Come to Be?” Nov. 13, 2004, NPR.) Those original colors came from Union blue, during the Civil War, and rebels from the South were red.
Reagan’s Landslide Turned GOP Red
But by the time of the Reagan landslide in 1980, his GOP states were switched to red, which were there in abundance with his 270 electoral votes to Carter’s 15. NBC called the election at 8:15 pm Eastern for Reagan. But not all the other networks followed the same color scheme
By the 2000 Bush-Gore match-up, Red (GOP) and Blue (DEM) were an established function of political analysis because the decision process continued, so the media map returned to home screens night after night. Eventually to avoid confusion, red became the universal GOP color and blue represented the Democrats.
In that contest political journalist Michael Barone described it in a Wall Street Journal essay: “The 48 percent to 48 percent cut in the 2000 election (became) two nations of different faiths. One is observant, traditional-minded, moralistic. The other unobservant, liberation-minded, relativistic.” Church attendance was a better barometer of the divide by 2000 with 59 percent of the GOP voters for Bush regular attenders vs. 39 percent of the church attenders for Gore.
A slight majority of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States have voted the same way over the past seven elections, up until 2016. All but 10 states have repeated their choice of party three times. The current red-versus-blue map was mostly written by 1988, when the first president Bush defeated Michael Dukakis. (Robert David Sullivan, “How the red and blue map evolved over the past century,” American magazine, June 29, 2016)
The keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2004, attempted to erase the metaphor for partisanship that red and blue had become. “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red state Republican and blue states for Democrats,” Barack Obama said. “But I’ve not news for them. We too worship an awesome God in the blue states and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries (referring to the Patriot Act) in the red states.”
Obama Flipped Nine States Blue
Four years later Obama was the candidate for President and won decisively 365-173 in the electoral college against John McCain. The screens were royal blue that year. Obama flipped nine states from 2004: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. He pulled in 69.5 million votes, the most since LBJ in 1964 until the 2020 election.
Moving into 2014, the division became two more diverse systems– red America: traditional religious, self-disciplined, and patriotic, and blue America: modern, secular, self-expressive, and uncomfortable with patriotic display. Flash forward two years: self-discipline appeared to be excused at the top.
The divide between the states grew deeper in 2016. The proportion of voters living in counties that were won in a landslide for the Democratic or Republican presidential candidate has steadily increased over the last seven elections and now makes up a whopping 60 percent of the electorate, according to Gregory Aisch, Adam Pearce, and Karen Yourish, “The Divide Between Red and Blue America Grew Even Deeper in 2016,” November 10, 2016, New York Times. Nearly all this 10-point increase came from Republicans in rural and small-town America, who swept Donald Trump into office.
Bill Bishop, co-author of the 2008 book “The Big Sort,” found that in 1992, 38 percent of voters lived in one of these landslide counties, defined as being won by over 20 percentage points or more. This shift reflects the tendency of like-minded people to live near one another. Lifestyle, which drew people together in the past, has come to be reflected in politics.
By 2019, 64 percent of white Christians were Republicans and 30 percent white Christians were Democrats. (Ronald Brownstein, “How Religion Widens Partisan Divide,” CNN, October 22, 2019). Among Evangelicals, which make up 16 percent of the US population, 75 percent vote GOP (including a portion of the Hispanic vote) and 19 percent Democrat, which came into play in 2020, but the white suburban women helped make up the difference for the Democrats. As church attendance continues to drop, even the Evangelicals who provide the foundation for the GOP base could be less plentiful. Demographic changes as the aging White population disappears and people of color increase in parts of the country.
So where are we by 2020? Have we been convinced that people that reside in either the red or blue states, depending on our own preference, are so different from us that it would be difficult to live next door? Do people pick their location based on politics, or work, or family? Or has this political shorthand cast the people on the coasts in opposition to those in the middle and those in the upper Midwest against their neighbors and their Western neighbors?
Political writer David Brooks does not characterize this as a Wild West scenario. In “Nation Slightly Divisible,” in The Atlantic, December 2001, he saw it more like a high school cafeteria with the Jocks and the Nerds, the Creatives, the Cheerleaders, etc. where there are cracks, not division cleaved with a knife. For his article, he traveled from Blue Montgomery County in Maryland 65 miles north into Red Franklin County, Pennsylvania (a trip he or someone might need to repeat to explain where we are today after the election of 2020). He realized then as we understand now that there are differences that suggest not just political, but also cultural and demographic between the states. The Red vs. Blue system is based on a winner-take-all electoral college vote distribution by 48 states (not Maine or Nebraska, they split their electoral votes by congressional district and statewide).
At the local level, individual members of those parties have a variety of positions and outlooks, so that nearly every town, city and patch of farmland in the country is “purple,” a mix of neighbors, friends, and family, each of whose own mixed political preferences tip the scale to vote for one side or the other in a contest. They cannot be reduced to red or blue. Purple maps were drawn showing this idea in 2004, to consider the nation as less divided, made up by individuals. (Phil Fox Rose, “We Are All Purple: The Destructive Lie of Red States and Blue States,” Patheos, November 7, 2012.
What would it take to bring America together?
Brooks may have seen different world views when he spoke to residents of Franklin County nearly two decades ago. Issues that burn hot today–health care, racial justice, climate change, law enforcement, international engagement, and the economy—were important, but not as critical as they are now. The cost of living was cheaper where they live, and they appreciated the slower pace of life and the beauty of rural life. It was their choice to live in a small town where they knew most everybody. The coastal cities were far away, and they liked it that way.
Then post 911 the country came together after the shock of an attack on American soil that took 3,000 lives at three locations. Today’s threat to our families nationwide does not have the impact of a loaded 737 crashing into and destroying the Twin Towers. The threat is invisible until it strikes. By the end of July, it infected 9 percent of Americans. About one-third of these were in densely populated places like New York City, leaving those in small towns and rural areas to sigh in relief.
Now Covid-19 comes around for a second, and in some places third time, just in time for Thanksgiving, at least an awareness of the danger creeps across the nation. Smaller communities now being hit are farther from major health care facilities that could treat an outbreak. ICUs and hospital beds in small and medium-sized communities are reaching capacity. Since the beginning there has been a reluctance to wear masks and socially distance in parts of the country that believed they were immune or feared the financial loss due to closed businesses outweighed the danger of the disease. Now we are in this together: 10,904,891 Americans have been infected since March and 245,600 people have died. It might be time to find a way to treat this as a universal threat that could bring a purple agreement to save lives and prevent further loss of businesses before a vaccine eventually is available nationwide in spring or summer 2021.