Political Dictionary


A Glossary of Terms from U.S. Politics

Beauty contest: A preliminary vote usually taken early in the electoral process within a party; it expresses a non-binding preference for one or another of the party's candidates. This preference is not linked to the selection of convention delegates.

Caucus: Literally, it means "a meeting," and it is one of the main mechanisms used by modern American political parties to nominate their candidate for president. In the presidential nomination process, it now denotes a meeting of local party activists at the precinct level who select, in an open forum, delegates to county meetings. These delegates in turn select delegates to state meetings; and these state-level conventions select delegates to the party's national convention. The purpose of this layered caucus system is to open political participation to as many people as possible, and to provide greater incentives to recruitment of fresh talent into party politics than merely voting in a primary election. From February to June of a presidential election year, the major political parties of every state conduct either caucuses or primary elections ("primaries"). By tradition, the rural, midwestern state of Iowa has the first set of caucuses in the nation (even before the first primary in New Hampshire), and so it has a big impact on the race, even though it is a small state with so few delegates. For more detail, see documents on The Nominating Process.

Conservative: In American politics, someone who is right-of-center politically. Of the two major parties, the Republicans are 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 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 will then compete in the general election with the candidates of other parties, and against any independent candidates, not endorsed by a political party. In modern U.S. presidential politics, "convention" 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 states of the Union, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories, formally nominate the presidential candidate. For more detail, see documents on The Nominating Process.

Delegate: An official representative selected by members of his or her party to a national or state political convention (see above). For more detail, see documents on The Nominating Process.

Democratic Party: One of the two current major political parties. For the most part, particularly since the early 1930s, the Democrats have been considered the party of less affluent people, and have 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.

Electoral base: A politician's "electoral base" is considered to be the heart of his or her constituency, i.e., 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 (contrast with swing voters), or some other combination of variables such as ethnicity, gender, religion, ideology, military service, geography, or positions on issues. In other countries, "electoral base" is often called the "vote bank."

Electoral College: The electoral college is the group of electors, chosen by voters throughout the U.S. on a 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 out of the 538 electors. The electoral college system is mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

Get-Out-the-Vote ("GOTV")Operations: In the last few days of a campaign, particularly on election day, campaigns usually focus most of their resources on getting their electoral base (see above)out to the polls to vote. Such operations (abbreviated as "GOTV" by campaign managers)include television and radio broadcasted appeals, telephone banks of volunteers and campaign workers who call voters' homes, reminding them to vote, "soundtrucks" with amplified speakers that drive through neighborhoods of likely supporters, volunteer drivers who drive likely supporters (particularly the elderly or disabled) to the polls, "pollwatchers" who ensure the integrity of polling operations, and dissemination of campaign paraphernalia (such as buttons, balloons, brochures, flyers, banners, lawn signs, posters).

GOP: An abbreviated nickname for the Republican Party.

Independent: In U.S. politics, this term denotes a voter, who, when registering to vote, does not declare affiliation with the Republicans, Democrats, or other political parties or does not consider himself or herself to be a member of a political party. Likewise, the term can also refer to a candidate for office who is running on the basis of personal identity rather than party affiliation.

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

Midterm elections: This term refers to elections held in-between presidential elections -- that is, two years after the previous, and two years before the next, presidential elections. 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.

Persuasion activities: Campaigns frame or define a message that will appeal to the undecided voters, and 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 candidates 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 get-out-the-vote resources.

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. For more detail, see documents on The Nominating Process.

Plurality: A plurality of votes is a total vote received by a candidate greater than that received by any opponent but 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.

Primary: A "closed" primary is a system of selecting a party's candidate for office in an intraparty election in which only registered members of that party may vote. Most state primaries are closed. An "open" primary is a system of selecting a party's candidate for office in which voters registered with other parties and "independent" voters (i.e., unaffiliated with any party) may also vote. This kind of primary is also known as a "cross-over" primary. The major political parties in every state choose delegates for their party's national nominating conventions, by means of either a primary or a caucus. By tradition, the state of New Hampshire has the first primary (soon after the Iowa caucuses), and so it has big impact on setting the stage for the rest of the race, even though it is a small state with so few delegates. For more detail, see documents on The Nominating Process.

"Reagan Democrats": Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan for president during the 1980s. It has become a generic term for swing voters in the Democratic party.

Realignment: In U.S. politics, this term refers to 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 which clearly shift the majority and minority status of the two U.S. major political parties, or which 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 party positions on a critical issue of national concern (as was the case with the slavery issue in the 1860s), credit or blame for handling a national crisis (such as the Great Depression of 1929,) or substantial changes in the demographic make-up of the voting populace.

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 re-distributive 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 (see term immediately above), replacing the now defunct Whig Party as a major U.S. party. The nickname, often used in newspaper headlines or when a commentator wishes to abbreviate, is "GOP" (pronounced gee-oh-pee, not gop)which stands for a now antiquated and little- used term, "grand old party."

Straw poll: In modern presidential politics, a non-binding vote, often taken among party activists and usually at a very early stage in a 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 normal occasions.

Super Tuesday: Primary elections are often held on Tuesdays, and Super Tuesdays are when primaries and caucuses are held in several states on the same day, with many delegates "up for grabs." If a candidate does particularly well on Super Tuesday, he or she will not only gain 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, causing front runners to solidify the perception of their invincibility, or lose ground to other candidates that do better than expected. Often, candidates that have were lagging in the opinion polls, and that 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 on candidates' campaigns that were already in trouble after disappointing showings in the earlier caucuses and primaries, such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

Swing Voters, Ticket Splitters, and Persuadables: "Swing voters" are those that are not always loyal to a particular political party, and therefore are not part of any party's electoral base. They get their name because they might "swing" from one party to the other in different elections. "Ticket Splitters" is another name for swing voters, because many of them will vote for candidates from opposing parties for different offices on the same ballot (e.g., might vote Democratic for President and Republican for Senator, or vice versa). They get their name because they do not necessarily vote for all candidates on the same "ticket" or slate, thus these voters "split" 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 "natural" electoral base as already likely to favor their own candidate. Thus, they do not waste resources on the former, and only "target" the latter for motivation or assistance to vote(called get-out-the-vote operations) on election day. Although swing voters are sometimes referred to as independents, they may be registered members of any political party. For example, "Reagan Democrats" is the term used for those Democratic voters who voted for the Republican president, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. "Reagan Democrats" is often used today as a generic term for swing voters in the Democratic party.

Third party: In the parlance of American politics, "third party" refers to political parties outside the two-party system which are perceived to have a significant base of support. In the 20th century, that has come to mean a party that is not the Republican Party or the Democratic Party and can play some role in influencing the outcome of an election.

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