In 1980 it was reported by all the networks that Ronald Regan had won the election in a run-away before the polls had even closed in the Pacific Time zone. In fact, Jimmy Carter had conceded before many citizens had voted out west. I’m from Washington State and I can tell you it hit us hard.
“Why’s it bother you?” we were asked. “It wouldn’t have changed the outcome.”
And that was true. But it is also true that voters who were told the election was over before they had even put in their “two cents worth,” were furious. As near as I can describe it, it was the same feeling I had one time when I came home to find that our home had been burglarized. First anger and then a kind of empty feeling at the realization that someone had violated our house, messed with our things, and took some belongings we’d worked hard to pay for. The reaction wasn’t logical, but it was real and in a Democracy one needs to pay attention to those things. Our system depends on the people’s belief that it works.
Rep. Bill Thomas, recently retired Republican congressman from California, and I – with the essential help of my partner, Bob Hynes, who was then a Vice President at NBC – worked out with the Networks a system that is still in place today. It is a long, long story which I’ll save for another time, but we concluded negotiations. The networks had argued that we really have 50 races for president in this country – one per state – and they could not hold up “news” when the polls were closed and returns became public in the early voting states. They were right about that. But they had been using exit polling to “project” how states would vote. We argued that that was not “reporting” news but “predicting” it. By recognizing the correctness of each others argument, a new policy was formed.
That is how it came to be that no one projects election results until the polls in a given state are closed. As much as the network news people of the day fought us on this, I suspect that the news people in place today tend to think the policy is based on bedrock journalistic principles. In fact, Bob and Bill and I think it is. And that is why election returns are reported that way.
“But how,” you might ask, “did the states become Red or Blue to signify Democratic or Republican-leanings?” The two parties have never been historically associated with a specific color. But the terms are now in common usage.
The fact is I don’t know. I wasn’t there at the beginning of this one. But I’ll bet it happened this way.
Some set designers were sketching out what the networks’ election night sets should look like. Obviously they were all going to be some variation of Red, White and Blue. What else? So when the boards showing the candidates names, votes and percentages came up, who was going to be red.
My guess is this. Some of the more extreme conservatives always considered the Democrats to be red or pink or some similar variation with a communist connotation. The networks, wanting to avoid that connotation, decided the Dems had to be blue. The GOP therefore became red because no one was going to accuse them of being “commies.” It was that simple I suspect.
The terms have only been used for a very few elections, but everyone today knows what you mean if you say, “Obama will do well in the Blue States. McCain will do well in the Red States. The winner will be the one who can win the “Purple States”.