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Thoughts While Strolling (9)

March 12, 2008


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.

croton democrats lawn sign croton republicans lawn sign

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.

On March 13, 2008 3:08 PM, waffels said:

Madison……we are a community of 7800+/- considered by most to be a small village. We are all each others neighbors. Your points about the signs are well taken for “Madison Avenue” but a little over the top in my opinion for a small village election. Honestly if the signs were hand painted it would have been the most appropriate. I have lived here a long time and elections used to be a fun exciting time. The system at work. Candidates put forth their ideas, pointed out the differences between them and their opponents and may the best man/woman win. Election night parties were visited by all candidates to congratulate winners or thanks given for a good hard fought campaign. Something was lost 10+ years ago. Croton was dragged onto the big politics game and lost it’s small town charm. Mean, accusing, lying, whatever it takes to get in. It was the “Newt Gingrich”, take no prisoners, rip their throats out mentality. Politics, even small town, are important and need to be taken seriously. Analyzing a sign and using that as a basis for your political opinion is missing the point. If you missed them watch the candidates debate on the village website and listen to what each has to say. Base your opinion on that not how the signs were designed……..Don’t forget to vote!

On March 13, 2008 12:28 PM, TeaDrinker said:

My compliments to the author of this interesting piece on the origin of the color-coding applied to the political parties. I learned a lot that I didn’t know. I’d like to offer a comment about something closer to my own area of expertise, the two lawn signs pictured in this piece. These convey a mountain of information about whoever designed them. The Republicans obviously know what message a lawn sign is supposed to convey—the allegiance of the homeowner on whose property it is displayed. It is foolish to try to make a lawn sign do any more than that.

The Republicans’ sign has two words in bold sans serif capitals—the last names of the candidates. It is strong and forceful, obviously the work of a professional. It shouts, “Look at me!” It can be read from 100 yards away and is an appropriate application of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

On the other hand, the Democrats’ lawn sign appears to be a testimonial to the vanity of the candidates (first names are unnecessary). The words “for Trustees” (the only office up for grabs) are unnecessary. Similarly, the words “Vote March 18th” are superfluous. The wonder is that whoever designed this sign didn’t try to squeeze more useless information into it, such as that she attended Stanford and he attended Harvard Law School.

The Democrats’ sign is clearly the work of amateurs with no understanding of the purpose of a lawn sign. Such a sign certainly shouldn’t try to convey an advertising message within small space. The thick-and-thin typeface chosen for the Democrats’ sign—upper and lower case Times Roman—is weak and anemic when it should be a robust and powerful font. If the Republican lawn sign shouts, the Democrats’ sign merely whispers. Whatever garbled message it is trying to convey is lost at 15 yards.

The lesson here is that when you are in a political campaign, get your advice from a pro. I’d give the Republicans an “A” in lawn-sign design, and the Democrats a barely passing “D.” What is so sad is that the Democrats never seem to learn how to play the game of politics.


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