Campaign & Election Terms


Absentee Voting: A method of voting that enables registered voters to vote in a given election without physically going to the polls.


Beauty Contest: A preliminary vote usually taken early in the electoral process within a party that expresses a nonbinding preference for one or another of the party’s candidates. This preference is not linked to the selection of convention delegates.

Buckley v. Valeo: A 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 stated that candidates who do not receive public money do not have to limit spending of their own personal funds on their campaigns.


Campaign: A schedule of planned actions and events designed to bring about the election of a candidate.

Candidate: An individual running for office in an election.

Caucus: A gathering of party members to nominate a candidate. Caucuses usually involve a series of meetings held over weeks or months that are attended by a select group of party members. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have their own rules governing caucuses, and the operation of caucuses changes from state to state.

Citizen: A member of a state or other political community. Only United States citizens are allowed to vote in political elections in this country.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission: A landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision holding that the First Amendment prohibits government from censoring political broadcasts in candidate elections when those broadcasts are funded by corporations or unions. The 5-4 decision originated in a dispute over whether the non-profit corporation Citizens United could air a film critical of Hillary Clinton, and whether the group could advertise the film in broadcast ads featuring Clinton’s image, in apparent violation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act in reference to its primary Senate sponsors.

Coattails: An allusion to the rear panels (“tails”) of a gentleman’s frock coat. In American politics, this term 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 the others to victory “on his (or her) coattails.”

Conservative: In American politics, someone who is right of center politically. Of the two major parties, the Republican Party is generally considered more conservative. In the United States, conservatives usually emphasize free-market economic principles and often prefer state and local governmental power to federal power. Traditionally, conservative support has come from business leaders. Candidates and voters commonly refer to themselves and others as conservative, moderate (or centrist), or liberal.

Convention: A meeting, at the state or national level, of delegates from a political party. These delegates vote for the person they want their party to nominate for political office. The nominated candidate then competes in the general election with the candidates of other parties, as well as against any independent candidates not endorsed by a political party. In modern U.S. presidential politics, the term usually refers to the national conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties, held every four years during the summer before the general election (which is held in November). These conventions, which include delegates from all the states of the Union, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories, formally nominate the presidential candidate.

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.


Debate: A discussion between presidential candidates that is held to address issues and campaign platforms. The first debate was held on September 26, 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Delegate: An individual that is appointed or elected to represent others.

Democracy: A government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Democratic Party: One of the two current major political parties. For the most part, particularly since the early 1930s, the Democratic Party has been considered the party of less affluent people and has supported an activist role for the federal government in the economic and social sectors. The first Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, was elected in 1828 as the seventh U.S. president. The Democratic Party is generally considered to be more liberal, or less conservative, than the other current major party, the Republican Party.

Divided Government: A term that generally refers to a situation in which 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 other major party. This situation can also exist at the state level, with one party controlling the governorship and the other 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.


Early Money: Campaign money given before or during the early presidential primaries. These funds help a campaign establish momentum.

Election Day: In the United States, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years. Presidential elections are held every four years. It is on this day that the American public votes for its choice of president.

Electoral Base: The heart of a politician’s constituency, namely, the groups of people who will usually vote for him or her whatever the prevailing political conditions at any given time, often out of party loyalty (in contrast with swing voters), or because of some other combination of variables such as ethnicity, gender, religion, ideology, military service, geography, and positions on issues. In other countries, the electoral base is often called the “vote bank.”

Electoral College: The group of electors chosen by voters throughout the United States on a state-by-state basis on Election Day who then meet and formally select the next president of the United States. The selection is by a majority of 270 votes cast by the 538 electors. The electoral college system is mandated by the U.S. Constitution.


Federal: A form of government in which power is divided between one central power and several regional powers.

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): A commission, founded in 1974, that oversees federal campaigns.

Front-Loading: 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 to have a disproportionate influence on each party’s nomination.


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

Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) Operations: The focus of a campaign in its last few days, particularly on Election Day, on getting its electoral base out to the polls to vote. Such operations (abbreviated “GOTV” by campaign managers) include television- and radio-broadcast appeals, telephone banks of volunteers and campaign workers who call voters’ homes to remind them to vote, sound trucks (vehicles equipped with amplified speakers that drive through neighborhoods of likely supporters with a recorded message for residents to hear), volunteer drivers who drive likely supporters (particularly the elderly and disabled) to the polls, “poll watchers” who ensure the integrity of polling operations, and dissemination of campaign paraphernalia (such as buttons, balloons, brochures, flyers, banners, lawn signs, and posters).

GOP: The Republican Party, which was previously known as the Grand Old Party.

Grassroots: Citizens, or common people, considered as a main political group. An organization’s grassroots consists of those people who are closely tied to the organization and its success. These people live in the nation’s congressional districts, not in Washington, D.C., and they elect members of Congress to represent their interests.


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.

Horse Race: A term used as a metaphor for an election campaign that 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.


Incumbent: An individual currently holding a position of office. The incumbent president is the individual who currently holds the office of president.

Independent: A voter who does not claim to be a member of a political party. This type of voter exercises free choice in voting with either party on various candidates and issues.

Issues: Ideas and points of debate that distinguish candidates in a presidential election. Landslide: The occurrence of an electoral victory in which one candidate’s votes far surpass those of the other candidates.


Liberal: In American politics, someone who is ideologically somewhat left of center. Liberals tend to favor more power at the federal level and federal intervention to regulate economic issues and certain social issues, particularly those involving civil liberties and the rights of minority groups. Of the two major parties, the Democratic Party is generally considered more liberal. Traditionally, the bases of liberal support have been among minorities, urban voters, labor unions, and academics, though that is changing as U.S. politics evolves.” Candidates and voters commonly refer to themselves and others as conservative, moderate (or centrist), or liberal.


Matching Funds: The dollar-for-dollar funds from the federal government that primary presidential candidates are eligible to receive to match the amount they have raised through their own efforts. They can receive matching funds only if they agree to limit their spending to $37 million during the primaries.

Media: Press coverage of political events that communicates political issues and occurrences to the public. This coverage may be slanted in favor of a particular candidate.

Midterm Elections: Elections held between presidential elections (two years after the previous presidential election and two years before the next one). Each midterm election selects one-third of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate and all 435 members of the House of Representatives, as well as many state and local officials.


National Convention: A huge media event at which thousands of delegates convene to nominate their party’s candidate officially. The convention provides a platform to declare the party’s nominee for president and the vice presidential running mate. The party platform is also discussed and announced.

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

Nominee: A person proposed by others for election to office. Nonpartisan: A person who does not identify with any particular political party.


Partisan: A person who is strongly devoted to a political party.

Party: A political organization that typically seeks to influence government policy, usually by nominating their own candidates and trying to seat them in political office.
Persuasion Activities: The framing or defining of a message that will appeal to undecided voters. Campaigns may convey that message through advertising (television, radio, and print), direct mail to the voters’ homes, door-to-door and street-corner campaigning by volunteers or campaign workers, personal appearances and speeches by the candidate, candidate appearances at debates, endorsements and testimonials, and favorable coverage in the news (referred to as “free media” because the candidate did not have to buy advertising space or time). Campaigns generally do not waste resources attempting to persuade voters that comprise the opposition’s electoral base. As for their own electoral base, campaigns generally target resources to get out the vote.

Platform: A formal statement of position on major political issues drafted by a candidate or a political party. In other countries, the platform may be called the party “manifesto.” The major parties ratify their platforms at their national conventions.

Plurality: A total number of votes received by a candidate that is greater than that received by any opponent but is less than a 50 percent majority of the vote. In other words, if one candidate receives 30 percent of the vote, another candidate receives 30 percent of the vote, and a third candidate receives 40 percent, that third candidate has a plurality of the votes and wins the election. Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton are examples of presidents who received a majority of the electoral vote but only a plurality of the popular vote in a competitive three-way election contest.

Political Action Committee (PAC): A group of people joined by a shared interest. A PAC can donate up to $5,000 per candidate per election.

Poll: The place where votes are cast. The term is also used to describe a survey researching public opinion.

Pollster: A person or company whose duty it is to research public opinion.

Precinct: The smallest political unit in politics, dividing voters by neighborhood. A precinct can have between 200 and 1,000 voters.

Primaries: A stage in the election process in which voters cast their ballots for their preferred candidate or for a delegate who represents that candidate. The outcome of a primary indicates to party leaders, the media, and the public the chance each candidate has to become president. Primaries are the main way to nominate a candidate.

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 specific questions about an issue or a candidate. Some unscrupulous campaigns have used the technique to “push” voters away from their opponent by including false or misleading information in their questions.


Realignment: In U.S. politics, occasional historic shifts of public opinion and voter concerns that either undermine or enhance one or another party’s traditional base of support. The term is generally applied to national elections that clearly shift the majority and minority status of the two major political parties or that replace one of the two major political parties with one that previously had been a “third party.” Realignment may be based on many factors, such as the reaction to a party’s position on a critical issue of national concern (as was the case with the slavery issue in the 1860s), credit or blame for the handling of a national crisis (such as the Great Depression of 1929), or substantial changes in the demographic makeup of the voting populace.

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

Regionalization: The unofficial grouping of the 50 states into about six regions in which states share certain geographic and cultural traits with one another that make them somewhat different from the other regions. During the presidential primary season, the term 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.

Republican Party (GOP): One of the two major U.S. political parties. During the 20th century, the Republican Party has generally been the party of more affluent and conservative voters and has favored economic and social policies that are somewhat less redistributive than Democratic Party policies. The first Republican president was Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, elected in 1860. The Republicans emerged in a major party realignment, replacing the now defunct Whig Party as a major U.S. party. The Republican Party’s nickname, often used in newspaper headlines or when a commentator wishes to abbreviate, is GOP, which stands for the now antiquated and little-used term Grand Old Party.

Rhetoric: The ability to use language effectively, through the practice of exaggeration or display, to influence others.

Running Mate: An individual chosen by a presidential candidate to run for vice president.


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

Soft Money/Hard 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.

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

Spin: The presentation of information that is biased or slanted to favor a candidate. Advisors to the candidates may engage in spin in their communications to the media.

Straw Poll: In modern presidential politics, a nonbinding vote, often taken among party activists and usually at a very early stage in the candidate-selection process, to indicate which candidate or candidates are preferred by a local group.

Stump Speech: The “standard” speech of a candidate for office-the one he or she is most likely to use, perhaps with slight variations, on regular occasions.

Super Tuesday: A day when primaries and caucuses are held in several states on the same day (primary elections are often held on Tuesdays), with many delegates “up for grabs.” If a candidate does particularly well on Super Tuesday, he or she will gain not only many delegates but also press coverage and momentum. Since Super Tuesdays are seen as big events on the election calendar, they often have a large impact on the perception of where candidates stand in the race, which may cause front-runners to solidify the perception of their invincibility or to lose ground to other candidates that do better than expected. Often, candidates that have been lagging in the opinion polls and that have failed to do well in the earlier primaries and caucuses drop out of the race if they fail to do well on Super Tuesday; they also may find it difficult to raise additional campaign funds, because they are portrayed as not having a chance to win the nomination. Therefore, Super Tuesday may serve as the coup de grace for the campaigns of candidates that were already in trouble after disappointing showings in the earlier caucuses and primaries, such as those of Iowa and New Hampshire. In 2012, Super Tuesday will be held on March 6 and will include Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia.

Swing Voters, Ticket Splitters, Undecideds, and Persuadables: Those that are not always loyal to a particular political party and therefore are not part of any party’s electoral base. Swing voters get their name because they might “swing” from one party to the other in different elections. “Ticket splitters” is another term for swing voters, because many of them vote for candidates from opposing parties for different offices on the same ballot (e.g., they might vote for a Democrat for president and a Republican for senator or vice versa). They get their name because they do not necessarily vote for all the candidates on the same “ticket” or slate, thus “splitting” their votes. When swing voters are undecided as to which candidate they will support, they are called “undecideds.” Political campaign managers also refer to undecideds as “persuadables,” because campaigns concentrate on persuading them, through various persuasion activities, to vote for their candidate. Campaigns generally consider the opposition’s natural electoral base as unpersuadable and consider their own electoral base as already likely to favor their own candidate. Thus, they do not waste resources on the former, and they only target the latter for motivation or assistance to vote (through get-out-the-vote operations) close to and on Election Day. Although swing voters are sometimes referred to as independents, they may be registered members of any political party.


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: A political party outside the two-party system that is perceived to have a significant base of support. In the 20th century, it has come to mean a party that is not the Republican Party or the Democratic Party and that can play some role in influencing the outcome of an election.

Ticket Splitting: Voting for candidates of different political parties in the same election, such as 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 Hall Meeting: An informal gathering of a group of people, often local, with an officeholder or candidate in which the audience asks questions directly of 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.