In 2009, first-time political candidate Ben McAdams made a bold, out-of-the-box move in his campaign to replace Scott McCoy in the state Senate.
He used the color orange.
“I wanted to signal that I’m different and somebody who doesn’t fit into typical partisan politics,” McAdams said of the design choice.
Nine years later, orange imagery has followed the Democrat through two successful campaigns for Salt Lake County mayor and his current race to unseat Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, in the state’s 4th Congressional District. Orange dominated his memorably cheeky billboards along Interstate 15 in 2012 and it’s the color of his signature campaign bus. He even has an orange suit coat.
It’s an example of intentional branding meant to capture a unique look and feel during an election year when yards, parades and seemingly every public space is lined with red and blue campaign imagery. A few enterprising exceptions may dip into variant shades — like azure or scarlet — but the rule for political color schemes remains tied to the familiar Americana of Old Glory.
But McAdams' citrus signage isn’t so unique in Utah. Love, now in her third congressional campaign, uses a similarly hued orange and blue motif.
She adopted it in 2012, when she ran against then-Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah — who himself stood out with an atypical green color scheme.
Sasha Clark, Love’s campaign spokeswoman, said the orange and blue theme is original to the congresswoman since her first run for the U.S. House.
“Like Mia herself,” Clark said, “they stand out in the crowd and have been very successful.”
Utah’s hottest race in 2018 features two of the state’s most visually novel, and ironically identical, campaign color schemes.
A study of scarlet
McAdams said he had noticed Love’s use of orange, adding that “it’s a good color.”
“I guess imitation is the best form of flattery,” he said.
But asked specifically if Love had imitated his design, McAdams added, “I don’t know, I try not to overthink it.”
Ryan Frandsen, marketing director of Alexander’s Print Advantage, said there’s little question that campaign signage tends to fall into the blue and red zones of the color wheel.
“Everybody always does red, white and blue,” he said. “When you do have those campaigns that stand out, they’re definitely something different.”
But even within the traditional campaign colors, Frandsen said, there’s currently a trend toward bolder and nontraditional shades and hues. He estimated that Alexander’s works with between 50 and 100 campaigns each election cycle, with clients running for statewide federal office to local school board and city council races.
Color experimentation is becoming more common, Frandsen said, but even those campaigns hold to conservative shades and steer clear of neon or jarring colors.
“They want to be different, but they don’t want to lose any political points for losing credibility by doing something way far out of the mainstream,” he said. “They want to stay close to home, but then venture out a little bit.”
Many of the campaigns contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune expressed a desire to differentiate themselves through the use of color and design, including those that fall broadly into categories of red and blue.
Among Utah’s congressional campaigns, Republican Reps. Rob Bishop, John Curtis and Chris Stewart all have logos that use a dark blue, similar to navy, combined with white, red or black elements. While their challengers are in the same color ballpark, they use less-common variants like royal blue and turquoise — in the cases of United Utah candidate Eric Eliason and Democrat James Singer — or the coral and white logo of Democrat Shireen Ghorbani.
Both U.S. Senate candidates, Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Jenny Wilson, use a dark blue and red in their logos.
Jack Darrington, campaign manager for the United Utah Party’s Eliason, said his team decided to primarily feature white to stand apart from the two major parties.
“We don’t want to look too much like a Republican or Democrat," he said, “by using red or blue exclusively.”
McAdams said it’s helpful to have a color that stands out in a crowd, at a parade, or in a cluster of yard signs. But orange also has a personal, nostalgic significance, McAdams said, reminding him of one of his first jobs on a pumpkin farm at age 12.
“When I think of fall, and especially election times," he said, “I think of working in the pumpkin field.”
Personal history was cited by several of Utah’s campaigns when asked about their design choices. The black-white-and-blue logo of Rep. Bishop is similar to the flag of Estonia, which his campaign said is a favorite of Bishop’s since he was a child.
Singer, a Navajo candidate running against Curtis in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, said his campaign selected the color turquoise for its common use in Southwest and Native design. His logo prominently features the slogan “Courage," which is also Singer’s middle name, and campaign materials incorporate visual references to Native American culture.
“Part of the [color] scheme also includes a coral red, to be used sparingly," he said, “and is a nod to its use in Native jewelry.”
Democrat Lee Castillo, who is running against Bishop in Utah’s 1st District, said he chose a blue and white logo to represent the sky and clouds. And Ghorbani, who uses a coral color scheme, said she likes bold, powerful colors but also wanted something fun. She said her team avoided the typical “Democrat blue” because they are not running a typical Democratic campaign.
“Our aim is to connect with as many people as possible — independents, Democrats and Republicans — to present solutions to problems facing all of us," she said.
Clark, spokeswoman for Love, was unable to cite the motivation behind the campaign’s use of orange as a theme color. But she pushed back on the implication that it had been lifted from McAdams' pumpkin-inspired visuals.
“This isn’t a ‘who wore it best’ campaign,” Clark said. “The selection of the colors is a distant memory, overshadowed by her successes in passing tax reform, reducing regulation and localizing education.”
Out of the blue
Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said that blue and red have come to be stand-ins for the two major political parties: Democrats and Republicans, respectively. But there is no political tie to the color orange, which may explain why Love and McAdams chose it.
In both cases, the candidates' paths to previous victories required pulling in not just voters from their own party, but independent voters and opposite-party voters as well, he said.
“None of these things are done by accident,” Perry said. “Both of them, I think, settled on orange to show that they are not just the traditional candidate from their parties, and that people should feel comfortable reaching across party lines to vote for them.”
Perry also noted that attributing blue to Democrats and red to Republicans is a relatively new aspect of U.S. politics.
As described by Vox, red and blue were used inconsistently to illustrate election results after the proliferation of color television and eventually were standardized by pundits, journalists and the national party organizations around the 2000 presidential election.
Perry said the design choices of individual campaigns boil down to a desire to stand out, to proclaim their allegiance to party, or an attempt at messaging who they are as a candidate.
“The color selections are as varied as the candidates themselves now,” he said. “The candidates really want to catch your attention.”