Red White and Blue: How Color Defines Politics

Nov. 5, 2018

As the 2018 midterm election results approach, why is it that some states are called “red” and others are called “blue”? Looking at the psychology of color, can associations be made between how each party characterizes themselves and their values?

November 6, 2018 is the midterm elections in America. According to FairVote.org, less than 40 percent of the eligible population votes during the midterms, but the current political climate has many hoping for a higher turnout this year.

In early October, Pew Research Center noted a 1.2-point increase in voters for Republicans and a 4.6-point increase for Democrats.

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Turnouts for early voting amongst young voters, ages 18-29, have been proving astronomical versus 2014, particularly in “red states.”

According to The Hill, as of November 2, 2018, early voting polls showed:

  • Arizona: +217%
  • Florida: +131%
  • Georgia: +415%
  • Michigan: +128%
  • Nevada: +364%
  • Tennessee: +767%
  • Texas: +448%

But why do we Americans associate political leanings with a specific color? Why do we know what it means to discuss voting in a “red state” or “blue state?” And what impact does the psychology of color have on individuals and communities?

How the Colors Came to be Red White and Blue

Of the 205 sovereign nations in the world, 21 share red, white and blue as their flag’s colors. But why do so many share the same trio of colors, and what do they represent?

On July 4, 1776, a resolution was passed by Congress authorizing the development of a seal for the new country which reflected the Founding Fathers’ values.

When presenting the seal – which was officially adopted on June 20, 1782 – Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, explained, “White signifies purity and innocence. Red, hardiness and valor, and blue… signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.”

The meaning behind the colors have since shifted slightly. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan declared it the Year of the Flag, stating, “The colors of our flag signify the qualities of the human spirit we Americans cherish. Red for courage and readiness to sacrifice; white for pure intentions and high ideals; and blue for vigilance and justice.”

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According to TIME Magazine, however, Mike Buss, a flag expert with the American Legion, points to the red, white and blue used in the Union Jack of England.

“They come from the three colors that the Founding Fathers had served under or had been exposed to,” said Buss.

Therefore, some of the correlation between the United States’ use of red, white and blue along with 20 other countries, including Puerto Rico, Australia and Cuba, could come from their historical correlation with England.

Red for Democrats, Blue for Republicans

During the 1976 election between Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter, NBC tallied the incoming votes using a map illuminated with white, red and blue bulbs.

Interestingly, during test runs prior to election night, the thousands of bulbs caused the plastic adhered to the front of each state to melt. Giant air conditioning units and fans were used to keep it from dissolving on-air.

As votes came in that November, the white-lit states began to change color: red for states which had voted for Jimmy Carter, and blue for those backing Gerald Ford.

Originally, the idea between the color choices relied on the fact that blue was the color of the Union in the Civil War, and the hue is associated with more conservative parties in Europe.

Red for Republicans, Blue for Democrats

NBC was able to use color-specific mapping due to the fact that it was the first network to utilize and display colors (the peacock logo with each tail feather appearing monochromatic across the rainbow’s spectrum symbolized its use of color). But as other stations began to follow suit, they too used color-coded maps to showcase election results.

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There wasn’t any sort of standardization, however. One company could use red for Democrats, while the next channel would use it for Republicans. The lack of standardization left viewers confused as they flipped through channels.

That standardization – red for Republicans, blue for Democrats – didn’t occur until the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, and it wasn’t done by committee or agreement. With the confusion of the close election that included well-published images of ballot counters squinting at “hanging chads,” the public relied on quick information about what was happening with the election results.

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Those states that voted for Bush began to be called “red states” while those that voted for Gore became “blue states” by the media.

Partisan Purpose of Colors

In the years since the 2000 election, the colors red and blue have become increasingly partisan with candidates donning dresses and ties associated with their party’s color. Of course, the use of these colors isn’t a dress code, but they have become quick indicators of a candidate’s political stance.

According to an NPR interview with Bill Bishop, co-author of the 2004 book The Big Sort, the coloring of states as “red” or “blue” has created a powerful affiliation that has shaped communities. “All of this is shorthand, right? So, a ‘blue community’ is a shorthand not only for politics but a way of life,” said Bishop. “We thought at first that this was all lifestyle, but the more I talked to people, the more I talked to people who said it was a conscious decision to go to a Democratic area or a Republican area.”

Particularly as partisan issues have become more widespread and divisive over the years, especially since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, the use of “red” and “blue” has become more than a quick way to showcase election results; it’s become engrained in the fabric of the American lifestyle and communities.

In 2016, Forbes reported that the United States Census Bureau found that between 2007 and 2012, Millennials made up over 43 percent of those moving, while the demographic only made up 24 percent of the total population.

While previous generations moved for jobs, the American Institute for Economic Research found that the social structure and the ability to be around peers, as well as career opportunities and climate, was a factor in Millennial relocation.

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Since then, Millennials have slowed their migration – perhaps due to increasing age which traditionally comes with things like families and mortgages. But moves toward being around like-minded individuals over the span of nearly a decade creates the ongoing issue of cities and townships becoming more partisan, particularly in how they vote.

The Psychology of Red

Using red and blue to indicate each of the principal parties in the United States could be contributing to the ideas surrounding what each value.

Red is associated with energy, war, power and passion, amongst other descriptors. The reason lies in biology and the way in which humans register the color.

Human eyes have thousands of cones that work as receptors of color. Of these cones, approximately 64 percent are delegated toward registering red.

From a biological perspective, this was important. Red has often occurred in nature throughout our evolution as a warning: many poisonous berries are red; it is the color of blood, whether your own or an ally’s, bringing attention to those who may need medical help; fire is either a warning of danger to you and your community, or a signal that a campfire has been made that will bring you to the company of your society and provide you a means of cooking the food you have caught.

Because of this need to recognize red throughout evolution, psychologically, red boosts aggressiveness, testosterone, confidence* and feelings of power – all responses one would need when reacting to a dangerous situation.

Red has shown to increase heart rate and frequency of breath, and cause the viewer to have increased levels of anxiety due to the fact that it instills fear, danger and stress.

In a western interior setting, red is suggested being used in moderation. (In the east, red is often associated with good fortune as well, changing its overall connotation.)

The Psychology of Blue

Of the three colors the human eye has cones for – red, green and blue – blue has the least, around 2 percent. (A small percentage of the population has been found to be tetrachromats, meaning they have a fourth cone.) Although it is not as noticeable in our environments as red is, because less of the cones are involved in registering the color, it does not create the same type of eye fatigue.

Biologically, blue is not a color that many things actually are, but it is often a reflection of other elements: for example, the sky is blue because of how light waves interact with the atmosphere; the water in a lake is not blue itself, but the surface looks that way because it reflects the sky.

Because the eye doesn’t become as fatigued by blue and humans didn’t evolve to physically respond to the hue, it is associated with calm serenity, confidence*, sympathy and intelligence.

Research has shown blue slows heart rate and breathing (in part, due to its connotations with calm and peaceful water and sky), boosts concentration and mental clarity, and inspires trust because it is non-threatening. On the other hand, humans react less emotionally with blue, causing its association to be linked with such clear rationality that it can come across as cold or following logic rather than feelings.

Socially since the ‘60s protests, it has been associated with peace.


Both red and blue have been shown to increase confidence. However, their psychological response is quite opposite.

Red’s confidence is through aggression and power. Those wearing red are often seen as warrior leaders. Blue’s confidence is through calm authority. Those wearing blue are often seen as rational, intelligent and deliberate in their leadership.

Presently, we’re able to see this correlation in the last several years of political leadership in America. President Barack Obama, a Democrat who often wears the party’s now-trademark blue, was lauded for his intelligence, calmness and deliberate use of speech (which has become a point of humor amongst comedians who echo Obama’s pauses between thoughts).

In contrast, President Trump is hailed by supporters as a leader who gets things done no matter the means, an aggressive businessman who speaks more in assertive power than calm rationality. For those railing against politics as usual, he has become a spokesman for American aggression and “America First” before global interests.

What Does This All Mean?

Although color is often seen from an aesthetic standpoint, the psychological responses shouldn’t be pushed aside. What started as basically a parlor trick in the 1970s – “look what we’re able to do with the latest technology” – has become internalized indicators of an individual’s beliefs or a community’s values.

By associating oneself and their community with a color that has such different psychological meanings than the other, partisan disparity continues to grow and continues the trend of voting along party lines rather than for one’s individual promises to the public.

In 2018, we may see traditionally “red” or “blue” states switching colors as changes in political climate push active voters. But because of the difficulty in separating the psychological responses from the color itself, we will have to wait and see if there is a change between the now-typical “red for Republican, blue for Democrat” and whether the parties continue to use the meaning behind the colors as the backbone of their agendas.

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About the Author

Kadie Yale | Former Editor-in-Chief

Kadie Yale holds a BA in Industrial Design from San Francisco State University and a MA in Decorative Art History and Theory from Parsons the New School. In her role as editor-in-chief from 2015-2018, she led the interiors+sources team in creating relevant content that touches on sustainability, universal design, science, and the role of design in society.

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