Sun, Oct 03, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Neither red nor blue, `swing states' are the new battleground

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

If there is one area of total agreement among political thumb-suckers of every stripe, it is that this year's presidential election will be won or lost in the battleground states.

California and New York? Fuhgeddaboutem. They go in the blue-state column. Texas and South Carolina? Sure-thing red states.

"What they did in Florida in 2000," John Kerry warned the Congressional Black Caucus, "they may be planning to do in battleground states all across this country this year." Dick Cheney told a town hall meeting in Milwaukee: "Wisconsin is an extraordinarily important state. It's a battleground state." Those are two of the 10 or so states in which the majority of advertising money of both campaigns is being spent.

These are the swing states, their electoral votes to be determined by the mysterious swing voter -- that person pollsters count upon not to be counted upon. Although Kerry said with some gallantry, "We're not dividing this country into red states and blue states," he may be the only one who's not. Let us now delve into the etymology of these recent additions to the American language.

For red state/blue state, I have in hand Hatchet Jobs and Hardball (Oxford, US$25), a new dictionary of political slang. Though the editor, Grant Barrett, provides no context for his entries, the citations often define themselves. Perhaps because color television was not universal until a generation ago, electoral maps were not consistent until the campaign of the president George Bush against Bill Clinton.

But on Oct. 15, 1992, a Boston Globe writer noted, "But when the anchormen turn to their electronic tote boards election night and the red states for Clinton start swamping the blue states for Bush, this will be a strange night for me." (By digging further on the Web, the reader can find that the coiner, or at least an early user, was David Nyhan, then of the Globe staff.)

On Nov. 5 of that year, after the results were in, USA Today reported someone (I'm not going to keep looking up these citations) saying, "I think it shows the lack of historical memory pundits have ... They're a lot more excited because they see a lot more blue states than red states."

That poses (not begs) the question: Why are Republicans red and Democrats blue? In France in the 1780s, revolutionaries sported a red cockade; in the European revolutions of 1848, "Red Republicans" advocated the use of force to overthrow governments and red became the color of communism. The Times of London wrote in 1848 about the battle in France "of the red Republic, as the Ultras there call themselves, against the blue -- colours being used to designate the parties as much in provincial France as in our counties in England." (A nice find, but somehow that doesn't strike me as the reason that solidly GOP states in the US are colored red on maps. Sometimes, as Sigmund Freud is said to have said, a cigar is just a cigar.)

But what about the battleground states -- where does that come from? Unfortunately, that is not covered in Barrett's dictionary, nor can it be found in the much more exhaustive 1993 edition of Safire's Political Dictionary, which I'm too busy to update. I first heard the phrase uttered by John Mitchell, the Nixon campaign manager in 1968, regarding the states in the upper Midwest, but I didn't make a note of it then, so that's not a solid citation. But thanks to my intrepid researcher, Elizabeth Phillips -- and the Library of Congress' American Memory database (www.memory.loc.gov) -- we have a coinage that will be hard for any lexicographer to antedate.

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