United States Political Glossary
United States Political Glossary
FAST Area Studies Website
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere, Finland

Affirmative action
The term used to describe a series of programs -- federal, state and local -- designed to compensate for discrimination. Most affirmative action programs pertain to employment, college admissions and contracting.

Ballot initiative
A ballot initiative or measure, called "propositions" in some states, which allows voters to propose a legislative measure or state constitutional amendments. Ballot measures are an example of direct democracy in the United States. But they do not supercede the Constitution. Controversial ballot measures, in particular, are often litigated, and sometimes overturned by the courts.

Blanket primary
A primary in which all the names of the candidates for all parties are on one ballot.

Blue Dog Democrat
Conservative, mostly Southern Democrats, who took their name from paintings by Louisiana artist George Rodrigue, who features a blue dog in a series of political situations.

Boll weevil
Politically, a boll weevil is a term used to describe conservative Southern Democrats. The name derives from the boll weevil insect, a beetle that infests cotton plants in the South.

Buckley v. Valeo
Landmark 1976 Supreme Court decision on campaign finance law that upheld the Federal Election Campaign Act's disclosure requirements, contribution limits, and provision for public funding of presidential election campaigns. However, the court struck down spending limits in the law, except for the limits accepted voluntarily by presidential candidates who receive public funds. Thus, the ruling allowed for unlimited spending by congressional candidates (they do not receive public funds), and by persons or groups who campaign for or against a candidate, but who do not coordinate their activities with any candidate or campaign. The ruling also said that candidates who do not receive public money do not have to limit spending of their own personal funds on their campaigns.

A meeting, in particular a meeting of people whose goal is political or organizational change. In American presidential politics, the word has come to mean a gathering of each party’s local political activists during the presidential nomination process. In a “layered” caucus system, local party activists, working at the precinct level, select delegates to county meetings, who in turn select delegates to state meetings. These state-level conventions select delegates to their party’s national nominating convention. The purpose of the caucus system is to indicate, through delegate choice, which presidential candidate is preferred by each state party’s members. Its effect is to democratize presidential nominations, since candidate preferences are essentially determined at the precinct level, at the beginning of the process.

Closed primary
Only voters registered with a particular political party can vote in that party's primary. For example, if it is a Democratic primary, only registered Democrats can vote.

An allusion to the rear panels (“tails”) of a gentleman’s frock coat. In American politics, it refers to the ability of a popular officeholder or candidate for office, on the strength of his or her own popularity, to increase the chances for victory of other candidates of the same political party. This candidate is said to carry others to victory “on his coattails.”

Any shade of political opinion from moderately right-of-center to firmly right-of-center. Of the two major parties in the United States, the Republican Party is generally considered to be the more conservative. “Political” conservatives in the United States usually support free-market economic principles and low taxes, and distrust federal, as opposed to state and local, government power. “Cultural” conservatives may be opposed to abortion or to the excesses of popular media.

Convention bounce
An increase in a presidential candidate’s popularity, as indicated by public-opinion polls, in the days immediately following his or her nomination for office at the Republican or Democratic national convention.

A discussion involving two or more opposing sides of an issue. In American politics in recent years, debates have come to be associated with televised programs at which all candidates for the presidency or the vice presidency present their own and their party’s views in response to questions from the media or members of the audience. Debates may also be held via radio or at a meeting place for community members, and they may be held for elective office at all levels of government.

Divided government
A term that generally refers to a situation where the president is a member of one political party and at least one chamber of Congress (either the Senate or the House of Representatives) is controlled by the opposite party. This situation can also exist at the state level, with one party controlling the governorship, and another controlling the state legislature. Divided government frequently occurs in the U.S. political system. Its historical impact has been to discourage radical change and to motivate politicians of both parties to compromise on proposed legislation.

Dixicrats (1948)    (see also Third Party )
The Dixiecrats led by Strom Thurmond, currently a Senator from South Carolina. The Dixiecrats were a group of dissident Democrats who opposed the racial integration policies of Democrat nominee Harry Truman. Thurmond garnered only 2.4 percent of the popular vote, but because he confined his campaign to the South, won four states there. Thurmond's purpose was not to win the presidency, but to deny victory to Truman by winning traditional Democratic states in the region. The effort failed, however. Truman won without the four Southern states.

Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA)
The 1971 law that governs the financing of federal elections; it was amended in 1974, 1976, and 1979. The act requires candidates and political committees to disclose the sources of their funding and how they spend their money; it regulates the contributions received and expenditures made during federal election campaigns; and it governs the public funding of presidential elections.

Federal Election Commission (FEC)
An independent regulatory agency charged with administering and enforcing federal campaign finance law. The FEC was established by the 1974 amendment of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.

The practice of scheduling state party caucuses and state primary elections earlier and earlier in advance of the general election. By moving their primaries to early dates, states hope to lend decisive momentum to one or two presidential candidates and thus have disproportionate influence on each party’s nomination. See also

A candidate in any election or nomination process who is considered to be the most popular
or likely to win.

Gender gap
In recent elections, American women have tended to vote in patterns different from those of men, often preferring Democratic to Republican candidates or candidates on the more liberal side of the political spectrum. The press has dubbed this phenomenon the “gender gap.”

In politics, when one side in a political matter manages to stall things so there is no way to maneuver around and nothing can be accomplished.

Hard money/soft money
Terms used to differentiate between campaign funding that is and is not regulated by federal campaign finance law. Hard money is regulated by law and can be used to influence the outcome of federal elections — that is, to advocate the election of specific candidates. Soft money is not regulated by law and can be spent only on activities that do not affect the election of candidates for national office — that is, for such things as voter registration drives, party-building activities, and administrative costs, and to help state and local candidates.

Hatch Act
The Hatch Act places restrictions on the political activities of employees of the U.S. federal government. The original 1939 Hatch Act was amended in 1993 to permit more political activity, but the following restrictions still apply:

  • Federal workers cannot use offical authority or influence to interfere with an election.
  • Federal workers cannot solicit or discourage political activity of anyone doing business with a federal agency.
  • Federal workers cannot solicit or receive political contributions.
  • Federal workers cannot be candidates for public office in partisan elections.
  • Federal workers cannot engage in political activity while on duty.
  • Federal workers cannot wear political buttons on duty.

Horse race
Used as a metaphor for an election campaign, “horse race” conveys the feeling of excitement that people experience when watching a sporting event. The term also refers to media coverage of campaigns, which frequently emphasizes the candidates’ standings in public-opinion polls — as if they were horses in a race — instead of the candidates’ stands on the issues.

In the U.S. political spectrum, “liberals” are said to be slightly left-of-center or somewhat left-of-center. Of the two main political parties, the Democrats are thought to be more liberal, as the term is currently defined. “Political” liberals tend to favor greater federal power to remedy perceived social inequities; “cultural” liberals tend to support a woman’s right to choose when to give birth, as well as feminism, homosexual rights, and similar freedoms of personal choice and behavior.

Matching funds
Public money given to presidential candidates that “matches” funds they have raised privately from individuals. During the primary season, eligible candidates may receive up to $250 in matching funds for each individual contribution they receive.

Midterm election
An election for seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives that occurs during a presidential term of office — that is, two years into the four-year presidential term. The results are sometimes interpreted as a popular referendum on that president’s performance for the first two years of his term. Midterm elections determine some members of the U.S. Senate and all members of the House of Representatives, as well as many state and local officials.

Negative ads
Advertisements that try to persuade voters to vote for one candidate by making the opponent look bad, either by attacking the opponent’s character or record on the issues.

Open primary
All registered voters may participate in the primary, whether they are registered as Democrats, Republicans or independents.

In the context of U.S. presidential politics, this term refers to a political party’s formal written statement of its principles and goals, put together and issued during the presidential nomination process. While Democratic and Republican nominees for president have traditionally paid lip service to their party’s platform, these lofty, legalistic documents have become less important in recent years as television has focused more on each candidate’s appearance, personality, and perceived leadership ability.

Plurality rule
A method of identifying the winning candidate in an election. A plurality of votes is the total vote received by a candidate greater than that received by any opponent but often less than a 50 percent majority of the vote. That is, if one candidate receives 30 percent of the votes, a second candidate also receives 30 percent, and a third receives 40 percent, the third candidate has a plurality of the votes and wins
the election.

Political Action Committee (PAC)
Political committees that are not the official committees of any candidate or political party. PACs may be affiliated with corporations, labor unions, or other organizations, and they contribute money to candidates and engage in other election-related activities. Most PACs have specific legislative agendas and are a dominant force in congressional elections. PACs have increased significantly in influence and numbers in recent years: in 1976, there were 608 PACs, and in 1996, there were more than 4,000.

Primary     (see also Blanket primary), Closed primary and Open primary
An electoral contest held to determine each political party’s candidate for a particular public office. Primaries may be held at all levels of government, including local contests for mayor, district races for the U.S. House of Representatives, statewide elections for governor or U.S. senator, and president of the United States. Primaries for presidential candidates are held at the state level to indicate who the people of that state prefer to be the parties’ candidates. Depending on state law, voters cast ballots directly for the presidential candidate they prefer or for delegates who are “pledged” to support that presidential candidate at convention time. State primary elections, if early enough in the political season, can occasionally stop leading presidential candidates in their tracks and create a surge of support for a lesser-known candidate.

Progressive Movement
A term used to refer to a great era of reform in American life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Proposition (See Ballot initiative)

Proposition 187
Proposition 187 appeared on the ballot in California in the 1994 Congressional elections. It proposed that illegal aliens would be ineligible for social services throughout the state. Although the measure passed by 59 percent to 41 percent, it is currently under challenge in the courts.

Protest vote
A vote for a third-party candidate made not to elect that candidate but to indicate displeasure with the candidates of the two major political parties.

Public funding
The financing, in part, of presidential election campaigns from a fund maintained by the U.S. Treasury. The money in the fund comes exclusively from voluntary contributions made by U.S. taxpayers when they pay their annual federal income tax. (See
Taxpayer checkoff system.)

Push polling
A public-opinion polling technique that is used to test possible campaign themes by asking very specific questions about an issue or candidate. Some unscrupulous campaigns have used the technique to “push” voters away from their opponent by including false or misleading information in their questions.

This refers to the intense campaign event and media activity at the end of the year-long cycle -- just prior to the election -- which includes a series of nationally televised debates, a flurry of television ads and extensive campaign travel on the part of the presidential candidates. See also

The process of redrawing the geographic boundaries of congressional districts, the electoral districts within states from which members of the House of Representatives are elected. Both Democrats and Republicans at the state level compete to get hold of the legal and political mechanisms of redistricting — usually by controlling the state legislature. By doing so, they can redraw boundaries of congressional districts in ways that will lend an electoral advantage to their own party.

A measure referred to voters by a state legislature proposing that specific legislation be approved or rejected. Oftentimes, the terms "ballot initiative," "referendum" and "proposition" are used interchangeably.

The 50 United States are unofficially grouped into about
six regions in which states share certain geographic and cultural traits with each other that make them somewhat different from the other regions. During the presidential primary season, “regionalization” refers to the practice of states’ joining with other states in their region to maximize the effect of the region on the electoral process, often by holding their primary elections on the same day.

Single-member district
The current arrangement for electing national and state legislators in the United States in which one candidate is elected in each legislative district; the winner is the candidate with the most votes. The single-member system allows only one party to win in any given district. This is directly opposite to the more common proportional system, in which much larger districts are used and several members are elected at one time based on the proportion of votes their parties receive.

Sound bite
A brief, very quotable remark by a candidate for office that is repeated on radio and television
news programs.

Spin doctor/spin
A media adviser or political consultant employed by a campaign to ensure that the candidate receives the best possible publicity in any given situation. For example, after a debate between the presidential candidates, each candidate’s “spin doctors” will seek out journalists so they can point out their candidate’s strengths in the debate and try to convince the press, and by extension the public, that their candidate “won” the debate. When these media advisers practice their craft, they are said to be “spinning” or putting “spin” on a situation or event.

Straw poll/vote
An unofficial vote that is used either to predict the outcome of an official vote, or to gauge the relative strength of candidates for office in a future election. For example, long before the Republican caucuses took place in 1996 for the selection of a nominee for president, straw votes were conducted in various states. A good showing in a straw vote can give a candidate a boost, but does not necessarily predict later success.

Swing voters
Voters not loyal to a particular political party, usually independents, who can determine the outcome of an election by "swinging" one way or the other on an issue or candidate, often reversing their choices the next time around.

Super Tuesday/Titanic Tuesday
Widespread use of the phrase “Super Tuesday” dates from 1988. On March 9 of that year, a group of southern states banded together to hold the first large and effective regional group of primaries in order to boost the importance of southern states in the presidential nomination process and lessen the impact of early votes in the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses.

By now, in informal speech, the meaning of the phrase is blurred, a reflection of the fact that during the presidential primary season there may be several groups of state primaries in various regions falling on one or more Tuesdays. These regional or multi-region groupings, whatever they are called, are important because the weight of such a large, simultaneous vote tends to make or break would-be presidential nominees since so many convention delegates are selected at once.

During the 2000 U.S. presidential election, a large number of states (including California and New York) held their primary elections on March 7, one week before the date usually associated with Super Tuesday. Thus emerged the term "Titanic" Tuesday.

Taxpayer checkoff system
A mechanism whereby U.S. taxpayers can choose to contribute $3 of their annual federal income tax payment to a public fund for financing presidential elections. To contribute, taxpayers simply check a box on their tax return that says that they want to participate in this system. Making the contribution does not raise or lower an individual’s taxes; it simply deposits $3 of the tax payment into the presidential election campaign fund. (See
Public funding)

Third party
Any political party that is not one of the two parties that have dominated U.S. politics in the 20th century — the Republican Party and the Democratic Party — and that receives a base of support and plays a role in influencing the outcome of an election.

Ticket splitting
Voting for candidates of different political parties in the same election — say, voting for a Democrat for president and a Republican for senator. Because ticket splitters do not vote for all of one party’s candidates, they are said to “split” their votes.

Town meeting
An informal gathering of an officeholder or candidate for office with a group of people, often local, in which the audience raises questions directly to the officeholder or candidate.

Tracking survey
A type of public-opinion poll that allows candidates to follow, or “track,” voters’ sentiments over the course of a campaign. For the initial survey, the pollster interviews the same number of voters on three consecutive nights — for example, 400 voters a night, for a total sample of 1,200 people. On the fourth night, the pollster interviews 400 more voters, adds their responses to the poll data, and drops the responses from the first night. Continuing in this way, the sample rolls along at a constant 1,200 responses drawn from the previous three nights. Over time, the campaign can analyze the data from the entire survey and observe the effect of certain events on voters’ attitudes.

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Last Updated 25 April 2010