What Color Is Your Lawn Sign? Anyone driving or strolling around Croton these days cannot help noticing the signs that have sprung up on lawns like mushrooms on the greensward after a rainy spell. But anyone familiar with political symbolism and world political history also will notice that in making the choice of colors on lawn signs in Croton a recent tradition has been flouted.
The tradition that has been flouted is the use of the term “red states” for states whose voters predominantly lean towards the Republican Party, and “blue states” for states whose voters lean toward the Democratic Party. The Croton Republicans, whose signs appeared on lawns first, chose blue, a color usually associated with the Democratic Party. Although the Democrats could choose any color other than blue, the Democratic signs that appeared on lawns in Croton are red, nominally the Republican’s color.
We have not made a formal count of the number of signs of each color disfiguring Croton’s lawn, but the initial impression is that blue signs outnumber red signs. This may only mean that the Republicans have been more diligent than the Democrats in their distribution. Then again, it may mean that the Democrats have higher regard for the appearance of their lawns than for proclaiming their political allegiance. After all, the only place where one’s allegiance really counts is in the voting booth.
Seeing a plethora of lawn signs got us thinking abut the origins if the red state.vs. blue state designations. So far as we know, color coding in politics is of relatively recent origin. It emerged in political reporting following the 2000 election, but did not come into widespread use until after the 2004 election. Since then, usage of the terms has been broadened to differentiate between states perceived as liberal or conservative.
The unofficial system used in the United States is the opposite of the color system used elsewhere in the the world and is counter-intuitive. The symbol of Britain’s Labour Party, for example, a red flag since the end of the 19th century, is today a red rose, while British Conservatives are traditionally associated with the color blue.Throughout the world, red is commonly the designated color for parties representing liberal interests, which in the United States would be more closely correlated with the Democratic Party. Some conservatives have been wary of using the term red state to describe conservative or Republican-voting constituencies, as the term had previously most often been associated with socialist states, like the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and the former East Germany.
Similarly, blue is used in most countries to represent conservative parties. In the United States, blue would be a color more suitable for the Republicans. Whether by accident or design, in choosing the blue color for their signs, the Croton Republicans are following a practice used everywhere except the United States.
The practice of using colors to represent parties on electoral maps dates to the 1950s and the Hammond series of historical atlases. Color-based schemes became more common with the adoption of color television in the 1960s and nearly universal with the advent of color in newspapers.
The most common color scheme was employed by NBC: red for Democrats and blue for Republicans. David Brinkley referred to the 1984 map showing Reagan’s 49-state landslide as a “sea of blue,” but this color scheme was also employed by most news magazines. CBS during this same period, however, used the opposite scheme—blue for Democrats, red for Republicans.
ABC was less consistent than the other two networks. In at least two presidential elections during the period before the emergence of cable news outlets, ABC used yellow for one major party and blue for the other. As late as 1996, there was still no universal association of one color with any one party. The majority of outlets in 1996 were still using blue for the GOP and red for the Democrats.
In 2000, all major electronic media outlets used identical colors for each party. This was most likely influenced by the choice of official colors for the presidential candidates. The Gore campaign using blue lawn signs, and the Bush campaign using red. Partly as a result of this nearly universal color-coding, the terms red states and blue states became more commonly used in the weeks following the 2000 presidential election.
Moreover, the closeness of that disputed 2000 election allowed colored maps to remain in public view for longer than usual. Journalists began to routinely refer to “blue states” and “red states,” even before the 2000 election was settled. After the results were final, journalists continued to use the color scheme. Thus, red and blue became fixed in the media and in many people’s minds, despite the fact that no “official” color choices have ever been made by either party.
Even so, the arbitrary standard in which a red sign signifies a Republican state and blue signifies a Democratic state does not apply here. Croton remains a contrarian community in which the color coding is reversed, at least for lawn signs.