There are theories, some likely, some just plain weird, to explain the shifting palette.
“For years, both parties would do red and blue maps, but they always made the other guys red,” said Chuck Todd, political director and chief White House correspondent for NBC News. “During the Cold War, who wanted to be red?”
Indeed, prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union little more than two decades ago, “red was a term of derision,” noted Mitchell Stephens, a New York University professor of journalism and author of A History of News.
“There’s a movie named Reds, ” he said. “You’d see red in tabloid headlines, particularly in right wing tabloids like the Daily Mirror in New York and the New York Daily News.”
Perhaps the stigma of red in those days explains why some networks changed colors— in what appeared to be random fashion—over the years. Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly wrote in 2004 that the networks alternated colors based on the party of the White House incumbent, but YouTube reveals that to be a myth.
Still, there were reversals and deviations. In 1976, when NBC debuted its mammoth electronic map, ABC News employed a small, rudimentary version that used yellow for Ford, blue for Carter and red for states in which votes had yet to be tallied. In 1980, NBC once again used red for Carter and blue for the Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, and CBS followed suit. But ABC flipped the colors and promised to use orange for states won by John Anderson, the third-party candidate who received 6.6% of the popular vote. (Anderson carried no states, and orange seems to have gone by the wayside.) Four years later, ABC and CBS used red for Republicans and blue for Democrats, but the combination wouldn’t stick for another 16 years. During the four presidential elections Wetzel oversaw for NBC, from 1976 through 1988, the network never switched colors. Republicans were cool blue, Democrats hot red.
The reasoning was simple, he said: Great Britain.
“Without giving it a second thought, we said blue for conservatives, because that’s what the parliamentary system in London is, red for the more liberal party. And that settled it. We just did it,” said Wetzel, now retired.
Forget all that communist red stuff, he said. “It didn’t occur to us. When I first heard it, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s really silly.’ ”
When ABC produced its first large electronic map in 1980, it used red for Republicans and blue for Democrats, while CBS did the reverse, according to Wetzel. NBC stuck with its original color scheme, prompting anchor David Brinkley to say that Reagan’s victory looked like “a suburban swimming pool.”