Television’s first dynamic, color-coded presidential map, standing two stories high in the studio best known as the home to “Saturday Night Live,” was melting.
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It was early October, 1976, the month before the map was to debut—live—on election night. At the urging of anchor John Chancellor, NBC had constructed the behemoth map to illustrate, in vivid blue and red, which states supported Republican incumbent Gerald Ford and which backed Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.
The test run didn’t go well. Although the map was buttressed by a sturdy wood frame, the front of each state was plastic.
“There were thousands of bulbs,” recalled Roy Wetzel, then the newly minted general manager of NBC’s election unit. “The thing started to melt when we turned all the lights on. We then had to bring in gigantic interior air conditioning and fans to put behind the thing to cool it.”
That solved the problem. And when election results flowed in Tuesday night, Nov. 2, Studio 8-H at 30 Rockefeller Center lit up. Light bulbs on each state changed from undecided white to Republican blue and Democratic red. NBC declared Carter the winner at 3:30 a.m. EST, when Mississippi turned red.
That’s right: In the beginning, blue was red and red was blue and they changed back and forth from election to election and network to network in what appears, in hindsight, to be a flight of whimsy. The notion that there were “red states” and “blue states”—and that the former were Republican and the latter Democratic—wasn’t cemented on the national psyche until the year 2000.
Chalk up another one to Bush v. Gore. Not only did it give us “hanging chads” and a crash course in the Electoral College, not only did it lead to a controversial Supreme Court ruling and a heightened level of polarization that has intensified ever since, the Election That Wouldn’t End gave us a new political shorthand.
Twelve years later, in the final days of a presidential race deemed too close to call, we know this much about election night Nov. 6: The West Coast, the Northeast and much of the upper Midwest will be bathed in blue. With some notable exceptions, the geographic center of the country will be awash in red. So will the South. And ultimately, it is a handful of states—which will start the evening in shades of neutral and shift, one by one, to red or blue—that will determine who wins.
If enough of those swing states turn blue, President Barack Obama remains in the White House four more years. If enough become red, Gov. Mitt Romney moves in January 20, 2013. For now, they are considered “purple.”
Here’s something else we know: All the maps—on TV stations and Web sites election night and in newspapers the next morning—will look alike. We won’t have to switch our thinking as we switch channels, wondering which candidate is blue and which is red. Before the epic election of 2000, there was no uniformity in the maps that television stations, newspapers or magazines used to illustrate presidential elections. Pretty much everyone embraced red and blue, but which color represented which party varied, sometimes by organization, sometimes by election cycle.