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Why does Democratic Party have a donkey as its symbol and use the color blue?

The mascots that represent the Democrats and Republicans were popularized over a century ago, but the color-coding scheme is a modern invention.

Conoce por qué el Partido Demócrata usa el color azul y tiene un burro como símbolo y el porqué del color rojo y elefante que identifica a los republicanos.
Brandon BellGetty

What was meant as an insult ended up becoming the mascot of the Democratic party. The symbol traces its roots back to 1828 but wasn’t popularized until over four decades later, at the same time as the Republicans’ elephant.

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However, designating the Democrats as “blue” and the Republicans as “red” is quite modern. Using colors didn’t get started until the election of 1976 when color bulbs were used on NBC’s election map. However, other stations used different colors as they pleased but one very long election in 2000 changed all that.

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Why the Democratic Party has a donkey as its symbol

Andrew Jackson was one of America’s most influential–and polarizing–political figures. He gained fame in the War of 1812 for his leadership and victory in the key battles of Tohopeka and New Orleans. When he challenged John Quincy Adams for the presidency in 1828, his opponents called him a jackass. Far from being offended, he included it in his campaign propaganda finding it amusing. He came out victorious and was America’s first Democratic president.

However, it wouldn’t be until the 1870s that the mascot would become the symbol of the party at large. A cartoonist at Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast, popularized the stubborn beast as the symbol for Democrats as a whole. He is also credited with the association of Republicans with the elephant, previously used by the party itself, as well as the popular image of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam.

Why Democrats are the “blue” party

During the coverage of the 1976 presidential election, NBC used colored bulbs on their election map to indicate which states went for Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Following our friends across the pond, Ford was blue like the conservatives and red was used for Carter like the liberals. Coloring schemes though varied from station to station and in the various newspapers and magazines according to the Smithsonian Magazine.

However, the epic election of 2000, besides bringing us “hanging chads” and a newfound civics knowledge in what the Electoral College is, also cemented the color association as we know it today. A mere two days after voters had cast their ballots both the New York Times and USA Today published their first color-coded election maps, breaking them down by counties.

Both publications used red to indicate areas that George W Bush had won and blue for places that went for Al Gore. The election and vote counting dragged out until mid-December until the Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida handing the presidency to Bush.

The extended exposure to the maps made them ubiquitous and solidified the notion of “Blue States” and “Red States” in the American psyche. But why you ask, did the Republicans get red, the color often associated with workers’ parties around the globe.

“There wasn’t much discussion about it,” said Archie Tse, senior graphics editor for the New York Times. Both “Republican” and “Red” begin with the letter “R”. “It was a more natural association,” he added. Over at USA Today, the database editor who designed their map Paul Overberg said he was just following the pack. “The reason I did it was because everybody was already doing it that way at that point,” he said.


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