« Things that we ought not to have done | Main | Oh, the impact »

States do not have colors

It is well past time to retire the red state/blue state cliche.

The best reason is that it is a cliche, a kind of automatic writing that releases the writer from the unpleasant challenges of imagination and thought. 

But there is a subtler reason for shying away from these terms, lying in the tendency of words and images to warp perceptions.

As the presidential election of 2004 drew to a close, everyone saw on television and in newspapers and magazines the red-state/blue-state electoral maps: that huge expanse of red covering most of the continental United States, with touches of blue at the fringes.

Those maps serve the same purpose as the Electoral College, converting close popular votes into decisive electoral votes by beefing up the electoral numbers for smaller states. (Each state gets the number of votes in the Electoral College equal to the number of its U.S. representatives, a measure of population, plus its two senators ). The Founders settled on the Electoral College formula in part to ease the apprehensions of the smaller states that they would be politically overwhelmed by the larger ones, and to check excesses of popular enthusiasm.

New York City, for example, with 8 million people, has a population greater than the states of Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming combined. New York state gets two electoral votes for its senators, and the other six states get 12.

So the red-state/blue-state maps show what the Founders wanted the Electoral College to produce: a vote so decisive that no one could quibble.

Shortly after the 2004 election, I came across a set of electoral maps showing different ways in which the vote could be represented graphically. The most interesting one showed the red vote/blue vote in each state. Instead of a nation overwhelmingly red, it showed a nation split, often nearly evenly, everywhere. That image coincides more neatly with the actual popular vote, which gave President Bush a slim lead over Senator Kerry.

Another interesting set of maps, “Maps and cartograms of the 2004 U.S. presidential election,” can be found at this Web address:

These maps represent the vote by population, rather than by state. One knows that California has more liberals that Utah. For that matter, it probably also has more conservatives than Utah; it’s a big state. But its sheer weight of numbers is not adequately represented on the conventional electoral maps.

Here, at last, is the point. Campaign strategists have to keep their eyes on the electoral maps because it is those weighted votes that determine presidential elections. But red-state/blue-state thinking is dangerous for voters. Yes, the country is polarized, but not by state against state. It is polarized among voters within each state. The Others are not Out There somewhere, but among us. Utah is not likely to go Democratic anytime soon, and the Republican Party appears to have consolidated its hold over most of the South. But there are tinctures of blue in the reddest of red states. And there are degrees of variation in the views of both conservatives and liberals.

I am not — and The Sun’s graphics and design desks are fully aware of this — a visuals person. Words are my domain, and in that domain I have a responsibility to watch out for language that stereotypes and distorts. The conflict between the Blue and the Gray, which produced lingering political stereotypes, has been over for nearly a century and a half. We should be able to retire the Red and the Blue as well.    

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:55 AM | | Comments (3)


What should have been the nail in the coffin for the blue state/red state usage that while states such as Kansas and Montana were giving their electoral votes to Bush in 2004, they had (in Kansas' case) or were electing (in Montana's) Democratic governors.

I second the motion. For the 2008 election (which by the looks of cable news is in full swing), let's end the red and the blue.

The Founders settled on the Electoral College formula in part to ease the apprehensions of the smaller states that they would be politically overwhelmed by the larger ones, and to check excesses of popular enthusiasm.

Well, I'm no historian, but it's a lot more complicated than that. The first cut required electors to vote for two presidents - one from their state and one not from their state. The one with the most votes would be President regardless of party and the one with the second-highest, the Vice President.

The original hope was that there would be no "party politics."

States could decide whether the electors were appointed by legislatures or by voters.

States could change the way electors were chosen at will, so one system would obtain during one election and a different one in the next.

Electors could change their minds after arriving in Washington. They could abstain, for example.

You should read an account of the Electoral College's gyrations in the Jefferson-Burr election. Egad.

The just-after-Founders changed that system pretty quickly to the one we're burdened with now. Time for it, too, to go the way of Electoral College 1.0.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected