What Do Different Colors Mean in American Politics?

Republican and Democrat party political colored symbols, elephant and donkey

Color is usually tied in with subjective experiences. Present two people with the same colorful image and they’ll typically report two very different interpretations. However, Americans have one part of their life where color is tightly bound to objective associations. Every election comes with a continual bombardment of red and blue signs. To someone from another country this might seem like an odd recurring holiday. But Americans know at a glance that certain colors are associated with political campaigns.

One will find a rainbow of colors tied to everything from presidential elections to local matters. Even ballot measures might bring out some special colors. But what do these colors imply and why were they chosen in the first place?

The Association of Red With Republicans

Republican red elephant mailing election ballot

The Republican Party is usually associated with the color red. Red might show up in a variety of different ways as people discuss the Republican Party. One of the most eye-catching uses of the color red can be seen in the Republican mascot. A single red elephant sends a clear signal to people that any given topic will be centered around Republicans.

Red is also typically used to show areas which have voted Republican. For example, in a presidential election states are typically color coded as results are tallied. If a state’s vote goes toward the Republican candidate then it will appear as red on an election map.

Riding In on a Blue Donkey

Democrat blue donkey symbol

Blue is typically associated with the Democratic Party. It has a similar role for Democrats as red does for Republicans. The main difference is that Democrats have their own animal mascot. Democrats are often represented by a donkey. It’s also quite common for this donkey to be blue.

Blue is also used to represent Democratic wins on political maps. The United States has several different political parties. However, the Republican and Democratic parties usually receive the vast majority of votes for any given campaign. The end result is a map which is typically filled with a patchwork of red and blue.

How Red and Blue States Fit Into the Political Process

Some states consistently vote for either Democrats or Republicans. If one can typically predict a state’s voting patterns then it’s associated with one of the two major parties. If a state typically votes Republican then it’s known as a red state. If a state typically votes for Democrats then it’s known as a blue state.

USA map voting of presidential election showing republican and democrat states

Venturing Out Into the Third Party Options

Of course there’s far more political parties in the United States than just the Republicans and Democrats. However, most other parties are too small to receive much attention. Only two other political parties in the United States have had much success when facing up to the Democrats and Republicans. These are the Green Party and the Libertarian Party. One doesn’t come across colors for these parties nearly as often. However, they do have notable color branding of their own.

As one might guess the Green Party is associated with the color green. The color green is meant to highlight the Green Party’s emphasis on environmental policies. The Libertarian Party is usually associated with gold. The choice of gold is meant to allude to the parties support for the gold standard as an economic model.

How Political Parties Became Associated With Colors

Blue donkey and red elephant representing the Democratic and Republican political parties of the United States

One of the most surprising things about these color associations is how recent they are. Most people assume that the Democrat and Republican color associations harken back to the party’s earliest days. In fact, this color association only dates back to 1976. And back then the color scheme was reversed.

NBC decided to use a large color map for their televised election coverage. The late 1960s marked a point of transition in the average American home. Networks could now reasonably expect the average home to have a color TV. NBC wanted to make the most of that capability with their electoral coverage. This prompted the network to choose colors for each political party. Democrats were given the color red while Republicans were given blue. This was the exact opposite of modern associations. From that point on one would often find different claims on each party’s colors.

The party’s color coding solidified in most people’s minds during the 2000 presidential election. The battle between George Bush and Al Gore brought politics to life in a way that most people had never seen before. Modern media had also moved far beyond the limitations of the 1970s. The end result is that people were easily and quickly able to associate political parties with specific colors. And that association turned out to be stable enough to last into the modern era.

Bringing the Past and Future Together

American politics republicans vs democrats red and blue

It’s clear that political colors have changed a lot over the years. It began as a quick convenience to take advantage of color television sets. Today the blue and red of political parties form a core political identity for many people. Many voters don’t just think of their political preferences with words. Likewise, they don’t think of their city or state that way either. Instead they think of themselves or their environment as red or blue.