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"Election Speak"

20 words and phrases to help you understand what the politicians and pundits are really talking about



When does a President become a lame duck? What makes your state red, blue, or purple? As November approaches, you're going to be encountering all sorts of political jargon on TV, online, and in magazines and newspapers. To help you figure out what everyone is really saying, here's a glossary of 20 terms to get you through Election Day.

ATTACK/NEGATIVE ADS: Most political ads tell you why to vote for a candidate; attack, or negative, ads tell you why not to vote for someone—and they can get pretty nasty. Voters and candidates say they don't like negative ads, but will they go away? Not likely: People may say they don't like them, but the reality is, they often work.

BATTLEGROUND STATES: The 10 or 15 states that are up for grabs by either candidate; they're also known as swing, or purple (as opposed to red or blue) states. Battleground states with significant numbers of electoral votes can expect to see a lot of Obama and McCain (and their ads) this fall.

BLUE-COLLAR/WHITE-COLLAR: It's all about the shirts. Blue-collar workers, traditionally in blue work shirts, tend to be hourly wage earners in factories or performing some type of manual labor. White-collar workers, traditionally in white dress shirts, tend to be salaried and work in offices. The two groups often diverge on issues—especially social and economic issues—and the trick for candidates is to appeal to both, without angering either.

ELECTORAL VOTE: Technically, the next President will be elected not by the popular vote (the total votes nationwide), but by the electoral vote. In the Electoral College system written into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers, each state has the same number of electoral votes as it has representatives in both houses of Congress. (Missouri, for example, with nine Representatives and, like every state, two Senators, has 11 electoral votes.) A candidate must receive at least a majority (270) of the 538 electoral votes to win the White House. In most elections, the electoral-vote winner has also won the popular vote. The last exception was 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush won the electoral vote, and the presidency.

527s: Tax-exempt groups (named after Section 527 of the federal tax code) that work for the election or defeat of various candidates. Because 527s don't contribute directly to the campaigns of individual candidates, they're not subject to the same contribution limits as individuals or PACs (see PACs). Examples of 527s include Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (see Swift-boating) and MoveOn.org.

LAME DUCK: An elected official who's not running for re-election and sees his or her power and influence waning as attention turns to possible successors. For example, George W. Bush is now considered a lame-duck President.

LOBBYISTS: Professional "influencers" whose job is to convince legislators and officials to support their agenda. Lobbyists for, say, universities, might try to convince Congress to allocate more money for, you guessed it, universities. Corporations and unions, foreign countries and the 50 states, liberal and conservative groups: They all hire lobbyists to advance their agendas in Washington—although the term originated in London in the 1800s, when people would buttonhole MPs (Members of Parliament) in the anteroom, or lobby, of the House of Commons.

MONEY RACE: The intense competition to raise campaign funds. Running for President isn't cheap: It's estimated that the McCain and Obama campaigns combined will spend a record-breaking $1 billion by Election Day.

MUDSLINGING: Particularly negative—and often nasty or overly personal—campaigning. Be on the lookout for candidates who accuse their opponents of mudslinging, when in reality they just don't like what's been said about them and hope to minimize its impact.

POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEES (PACS): Private organizations that collect campaign contributions and distribute them to specific candidates. PACs work on behalf of businesses, unions, and other causes. Their donations are limited to $5,000 per candidate in each election. The top five PACs in terms of donations in the 2004 election were the National Association of Realtors, the Laborers International Union of North America, the National Auto Dealers Association, the Electrical Workers union, and the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

REAGAN DEMOCRATS: In the 1980 and 1984 elections, millions of Democrats unhappy with their party crossed party lines and voted for the Republican, Ronald Reagan. In the race for the Democratic nomination this year, Reagan Democrats tended to support Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. In the general election, will they support Obama or McCain?

RED/BLUE/PURPLE STATES: States haven't always been color coded, although election-night maps on TV often were. But the 2000 election made it "official": Red became the color for states voting Republican, and blue for those voting Democratic. In recent years, most states have voted pretty consistently for one party, and they started becoming known as red or blue states, even when there wasn't an election. And purple? That's for the 10 or 15 less predictable swing or battleground states that could go either way in November.

SOCCER MOMS AND NASCAR DADS: Two large but amorphous groups of voters that get a lot of attention from candidates, or at least the media. Soccer moms, who rose to prominence in the 1996 election, are typically, or stereotypically, affluent suburban mothers who spend a lot of time driving their kids to soccer games and other activities in their S.U.V.'s. Nascar dads, who are making their first serious appearance in this election, are typically/stereotypically blue-collar guys who like Nascar racing and worry about their jobs moving to China.

SOFT MONEY: Political contributions that are supposed to be used for "party building" activities like voter-registration drives as opposed to supporting specific candidates. Because soft-money contributions are not limited like some other types—and individual candidates do benefit at least indirectly from them—they are often used as a legal loophole for those who want to make additional contributions.

SOUND BITES: Catchy phrases that candidates use to sum up their positions, attack their rivals—and increase their chances of getting on TV news shows.

SPIN: Sometimes candidates say things they regret, or things happen that make them look bad. That's where spin comes in: Campaign aides or other officials will seek out reporters and "interpret" the event in question in as positive a light as possible. Champion spinners are called spin doctors.

STUMP SPEECH: Long before elections were largely played out on TV and the Web, candidates went from town to town giving speeches, sometimes using a tree stump as a platform. Today, the term refers to the standard speech candidates give (with a few local references thrown in) day after day on the campaign trail.

SWIFT-BOATING: During Senator John Kerry's bid to unseat President Bush in 2004, a 527 group (see 527s) called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran ads trying to discredit Kerry's Vietnam War record. (The Navy vessels that Kerry served on were called swift boats.) Now candidates whose reputations have been maligned are said to have been "swift-boated."

SWING VOTERS: Plenty of voters brag about their party loyalty and never having crossed party lines on Election Day; neither McCain nor Obama are wasting time trying to convince such voters. They're focusing on swing voters, who may or may not be registered Republicans or Democrats, but who actually think about the candidates and issues involved and can be persuaded to vote for either party. Reagan Democrats are often swing voters (see Reagan Democrats).

YOUTH VOTE: The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971, but 18- to 24-year-olds have a spotty voting record. In the 2004 presidential election, their turnout was 47 percent—the lowest of any group. But a lot more young people voted in the primaries this year. Will they turn out in November? The fate of both Obama and McCain could depend on it. Stay tuned.