When designers go about visualizing the distribution of political power in the United States, many opt to use a well-worn visual shorthand: red for Republican states and blue for Democratic states. Though the terms “red state” and “blue state” used to convey the country’s partisan divide is fairly recent–the Washington Post points to the late journalist Tim Russert’s coverage of the 2000 election–the habit of dividing the country into two different political hues is much older. It can be traced, according to historian Susan Schulten, back to a Census-based map in an 1883 atlas.
The aftermath of the Civil War and end of the Reconstruction period was a time of fierce political rivalry in the United States, as Schulten writes in the New Republic. During the late 19th century, the academic discipline of political science was just starting to appear, and scholars were eager to create charts, maps, and graphs that could make sense of America’s 100 years of democratic history. In 1870, the U.S. Census began including maps and charts to represent its data for the first time.
Scribner’s Statistical Atlas, a hefty tome of maps published by Census Superintendent Henry Gannett in 1883, used Census data to map the returns of the 1880 presidential election by county. It not only showed which counties voted Republican or Democrat by dividing the map into blue and red, but it used different shades of those colors to convey the degree to which each party won the county. Where one party won decisively, the map is darker in color; where the election is close, it’s lighter.
“Such data maps are routine today. But this one stunned nineteenth-century Americans by showing them a nation organized not according to railroads and towns, or mountains and rivers, but Democrats and Republicans,” Schulten explains. Though such a design seems commonplace today, in 1883, this one “broke new ground by enabling Americans to visualize the spatial dynamics of political power,” she writes.
The 1883 map looks not unlike contemporary electoral maps, with much of the south colored red, and the northeast a bastion of blue. But parties represented by each color were reversed: Blue marks Republican districts, and red marks Democratic ones. And though the names have stayed the same, the parties themselves have changed quite a bit since the 1880s. The Democratic Party supported slavery, opposed civil rights reforms, and wanted to limit the power of the federal government. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.
In the 20th century, television stations would come to visualize presidential elections in much the same way as Scribner’s Statistical Atlas did–but the colors were far from standardized. In 1976, for instance, ABC News used blue for states that went to Jimmy Carter, yellow for states that voted for Gerald Ford, and red for the states whose ballots hadn’t come in yet. The weeks-long recount coverage of the 2000 presidential election, when both the New York Times and USA Today published their first color-coded county-by-county electoral maps using red for Republicans and blue for Democrats, probably cemented our current associations. Yep, thank Bush v. Gore for easy-to-understand election results.
[h/t the New Republic]