US Election 2016: Red, Blue, Purple

The Spectator has recruited some actual Americans living in the actual United States of America to provide insight into the 2016 US presidential election. We kick off this week with a recap of the conventions and a discussion of the US electoral map with our eye in Denver, Colorado, Shay Carlstrom.

It’s impossible to discuss the 2016 US presidential election without resorting to superlatives: the most disliked pair of major party candidates in modern American history, the least qualified candidate in American history, the most qualified candidate in American history, the most divisive campaign season in American history. A campaign pitting a candidate dismissed by many as a clownish, television buffoon against a candidate who has been seen as inevitable twice.

Post convention, a party will often focus on raising its chosen candidate’s profile, increasing his or her recognition levels. But lack of recognition is not a problem for either of these candidates: the problem is that they are so well known the possibility of changing any voter’s opinion of them might be fanciful. Despite this, one continues the struggle to change minds; the other simply continues to struggle.


The Color Purple

Three colors form the legend of the American political map: blue, red and purple.

In the Blue corner are a number of ‘blue states’ which, for varying reasons and to varying degrees, are reliably Democratic. These include the most populous—California—as well as New York, Illinois, Washington State, most of New England, and Hawaii. The Democratic base trends urban, secular, liberal. Geographically, it encompasses the coasts and many of the larger inland cities. Democratic voters tend to be racially diverse, college educated and young. As a group, they are growing.Clinton_Kaine_2016_campaign_sign

Team Blue has nominated Hillary Clinton: former first lady, senator from New York, and secretary of state under President Barack Obama. She has been a constant presence in the American consciousness since the election of her husband, Bill Clinton, in 1992.

Clinton’s inevitable candidacy made her the target of a ceaseless barrage of charges, allegations, and investigations from the Republican-held congress but it also meant Democratic opponents to her candidacy were sparse, despite her lack of popularity and the view of her (particularly among the Millennials who were core to Obama’s coalition) as untrustworthy.

Enter the Democratic Socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Sanders, the lone Independent in the senate, joined the Democratic Party for his 2016 leadership bid. His entry received negligible fanfare; yet, with an unwavering message of economic populism and reform, he tapped into a passionate well of support among the young and left-leaning, many of whom struggle beneath the yoke of American student debt.

Sanders’ spectacular rise created a grueling, lengthy Democratic primary, as he took key Purple States and brought into question the entire process by which the Democrats choose their candidate. (In particular, the use of ‘super-delegates,’ current office holders such as governors and former presidents, given out-sized voting power within the party.)

Fearful she would again be shoved aside in favor of a more charismatic, progressive figure, Clinton shifted her platform to the left.

The extended race, full of questions of validity and cronyism, ended with a dramatic concession by Senator Sanders at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia amid protests and walkouts. Despite the uproar, the Democratic Convention was seen as a success, with a generally positive message (including Bill Clinton playing with huge balloons), and Clinton has since enjoyed a massive lead in the polls over Trump.

Team Red

Team Red, the Republicans, also known as the Grand Old Party or the GOP, has nominated Donald Trump: Manhattan real estate mogul, reality TV star, failed casino owner; a man who has never held elected office. He, like Clinton, has also been a constant presence since the 1980s, through his books, film cameos and television series, but mostly through his YUGE existence.

Trump-Pence sign at rally

Photo by Gage Skidmore

With Trump are the ‘red states’ behind the GOP electoral firewall: most of the Deep South creeping through the Midwest and into the West, including Texas and the distant red stronghold of Alaska. GOP voters trend rural and religious. They are generally whiter, less educated and older than their Democratic rivals. As a group, they are shrinking.

Trump’s candidacy was not viewed as ‘inevitable.’ Myriad candidates, both conventional and decidedly not so, threw their hats into the ring. Two southern Senators vied for the nomination, Florida’s Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who rose to power in deep-red Texas on the shoulders of an evangelical Christian base despite being born in Alberta.

The GOP primaries saw an unprecedented level of mockery and name-calling, culminating in questions as to what the size of Trump’s hands might indicate about other parts of his anatomy. Cruz became Trump’s chief and final rival but never a real threat. In the end, he conceded, generating one last row by refusing to endorse Trump at the GOP National Convention in Cleveland. That convention seemed to endorse a ‘dark’ and ‘apocalyptic’ view of the United States, that of a broken country which only Trump can fix.

Team Purple

Finally, combine red and blue together and you get: Team Purple, which is not actually a team, but for the purposes of summary represents a loose conglomeration of ‘swing states’ and independent, unaffiliated and undecided voters. It could perhaps be expanded to include the weak, ‘third’ political parties and disaffected Dem and GOP voters. This is the fastest spreading color, and also the focus of attention for both reporters and campaign directors.

Neither the Dems nor the GOP can win the White House relying solely on their bases—they must reach as many of these purple voters and states as possible. Much of the campaigns’ money, time, and advertising will be directed at the ‘purple’ voters of the Rust Belt states, including the much-wooed Ohio and Pennsylvania (where, as noted, the GOP and Democratic conventions, respectively, were held); two Western states with considerable non-white and urban populations, Colorado and Nevada; some of the coastal South with growing urban and racially diverse populations, Virginia and North Carolina; and—the downfall of Al Gore in 2000—Florida, which is simultaneously deeply southern, racially and socio-economically diverse, and populous.


Along with the superlatives, ‘unprecedented’ is a word applicable to much of what is happening in 2016. Many Americans seem to be dealing with a political existential crisis, unsure how a country that often finds the leaders it needs when it needs them, has ended up saddled with these unpopular, seemingly tainted, candidates.

While Hillary Clinton enjoys large leads in most of the purple states, in election terms, there is much to come. The tradition of the ‘October surprise’ in American presidential elections has pundits prating about everything from a key victory over ISIS in Mosul to what Russian email hackers (encouraged by Trump) might reveal about Clinton and the Democratic Party.

One thing is certain: this election is sure to continue to prove superlatively unprecedented.

Shay V. Carlstrom


Born in Walden, North Park, Colorado, Shay V. Carlstrom is an educator and writer living in Denver.




Trump/Pence sign photo by Gage Skidmore, Peoria, AZ, United States of America [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Swing States map: Orser67 [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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