The Color Of Politics: How Did Red And Blue States Come To Be? The United States split into red states and blue as we know them just a few presidential elections ago. Some dislike the broad brush.

The Color Of Politics: How Did Red And Blue States Come To Be?

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Even when the midterms are officially over, it won't be long before we are, again, inundated by maps of red and blue states - the primary colors that have become symbols of this country's partisan divide. We've been absorbing all sorts of information about color, so we wanted to know - why are Republicans red and Democrats blue? It wasn't always that way. NPR senior correspondent Ron Elving has our history lesson.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: For a very long time, the colors of America have been red, white and blue. That's the color scheme at public events. From the World Series...

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: There's a drive into deep left field...

ELVING: ...To the presidential nominating convention.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The great state of Alabama casts 48 votes for Barack Obama.

ELVING: But it was red, white and blue together. The only time colors really marked a major national division was the Civil War.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN AND WOMAN: (Singing) Two brothers on their way - one wore blue and one wore gray.

ELVING: That blue-gray thing is mostly history now, but for more than a hundred years, maps in reference works used blue for states that voted Republican, the party that preserved the union. Then came television. NBC was the first all-color network.

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ELVING: And in 1976, NBC News anchor John Chancellor unveiled an illuminated map with states turning blue as they were called for Republican, President Gerald Ford, or red for challenger Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. Chancellor was still using this color arrangement four years later.

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JOHN CHANCELLOR: We will be coloring in those on the map now in blue for Reagan. New Hampshire is the first state that we are calling for him in this list of states. Vermont - we are coloring blue in a projection for Reagan.

ELVING: By then, all the TV networks were using color maps, but with different color schemes. Viewers saw Republican Ronald Reagan's states turn blue on NBC and CBS but on ABC, they heard and saw this.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR #1: Blue for Mr. Carter. Red for Reagan. Orange will be Anderson states - if any.

ELVING: The confusion continued until the election of 2000. That was the first year all the TV news operations settled on red and blue as we know them today. The outcome of that election was in dispute for five solid weeks, so the election night maps stayed highly visible, night after night. And red and blue states became part of the language.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR #2: The great divide - red states versus blue states.

UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR #3: It says there that red states are winning the battle with low taxes...

UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR #4: What do you call a state if it's half red and half blue?

UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR #5: The news media like to depict the states as red or blue, but the map is really closer to purple.

ELVING: In 2004, a Senate candidate from Illinois named Barack Obama made the red-blue scheme a target in the speech that made him famous.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states - Red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats - but I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states.

ELVING: Of course, people went right on talking about red and blue states after that, and not just on election night.

BILL BISHOP: All this is a shorthand right?

ELVING: Bill Bishop is a journalist in Texas who co-wrote an influential book called "The Big Sort," documenting how Americans move to parts of the country they find most compatible.

BISHOP: So a blue community is a shorthand not only for politics, but for a way of life. And also for a look - and I give these talks and I have these slides - where I just say can you guess whether this is a Republican or a Democratic community just by the way it looks?

ELVING: Bishop says one of the best predictors of political leanings in a community is just the distance between the dwellings. Now, that means living the red state life or the blue makes a difference far beyond election night. Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington.

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