All Illustrations by Tomasz Walenta. Tetra Images/Getty Images (TV); Liam Norris/Getty Images (Boxing Glove)

‘Election Speak’

You’ll be hearing lots of campaign jargon as November approaches. These are the terms you’re likely to encounter most.


Many political ads tell you reasons to vote for a candidate. Attack, or negative, ads tell you why not to vote for someone—and they can get nasty. Both voters and candidates say they don’t like negative ads, but will they go away? Not likely: The reality is, negative ads often work.


States with a large number of undecided voters are known as battleground states because candidates campaign hard there, fighting for every vote. They’re also known as swing states because in different election years, they’ve swung their support from one party to the other (see map).


Conservatives, often said to be “on the right,” generally think government should play a limited role in regulating business and instituting social reforms. They tend to vote Republican. Liberals, often said to be “on the left,” generally think government should play an active role in regulating business and solving social problems. They tend to vote Democratic. Be careful who you label, though: Sometimes people are conservative on some issues and liberal on others.


Technically, the presidency is decided not by the popular vote (total votes nationwide) but by the electoral vote. In the Electoral College system established in the Constitution, each state has the same number of electoral votes as it has representatives in the two houses of Congress. The total number of electoral votes is 538 (535 for the states plus 3 for Washington, D.C.). To win the presidency, a candidate must receive at least a majority (270) of those votes. Most of the time, the popular-vote winner is also the electoral vote winner. The most recent exception was 2000, when Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but Republican George W. Bush won the electoral vote—and the White House.


reis/Photodisc/Getty Images (mud splatter)

Particularly negative—and often nasty and very personal—campaigning. But watch out for candidates who accuse their opponents of mudslinging when, really, they just don’t like what’s being said about them and want to minimize its impact.


These terms sprouted from the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York in 2011. “The 1 percent” has become shorthand for the wealthy and powerful, especially Wall Street bankers. “The 99 percent” refers to everybody else.


A politician who appeals to or claims to represent the common people. Populists can be of any political party, and be right-wing or left-wing. (Republican candidate Donald Trump is considered by many to be a populist.)


Election maps on TV were often color-coded to show how the two parties were doing. Red became standard for states voting Republican, blue for those voting Democratic. In recent years, most states have voted fairly consistently for one party or the other, and have become known as red or blue states. States that can go either way are known as purple.


Don Nichols/Getty Images (Megaphone); Brian Hagiwara/Getty Images (Teeth)

Brief, catchy phrases that politicians use to sum up their positions or attack their rivals. The shorter and more compelling a comment, the better its chances of being replayed in TV news reports or shared on social media.


Sometimes candidates make statements they regret or something happens that makes them look bad. That’s where spin comes in. Campaign aides and supporters go on TV or online to interpret, or “spin,” the event in a positive light. The real pros are known as spin doctors.


Long before election campaigns were largely played out on TV and the internet, candidates traveled from town to town giving the same speech, sometimes standing on a tree stump in order to be seen in a crowd. Today the term refers to the standard speech a candidate gives—with a few local references thrown in—day after day on the campaign trail.


Political action committees (PACs) are private groups that may donate up to $5,000 to support a political candidate. But a super PAC may pool unlimited donations from individuals, corporations, and unions to advocate for a candidate as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidate’s campaign staff. Super PACs grew out of a 2010 Supreme Court decision that said corporations and unions have the same free speech rights as people, so government can’t limit their political spending. Critics say super PACs give their donors too much influence.


Voters not loyal to the Democratic or Republican party; they might vote for either party depending on the candidates and issues. The Clinton and Trump campaigns will work hard to win over swing voters. 

TWITTER WAR Images (Helmet, Tank)

A back-and-forth dispute on Twitter. Candidates and campaign staff for both political parties tweet to get their points across—and attack each other's actions, words, or points of view. While Trump is known for being particularly active on Twitter, Clinton also tweets frequently, and the two have engaged in heated Twitter exchanges.


The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971. But 18- to 24-year-olds have a spotty voting record. Just 38 percent voted in 2012—the lowest for any age group. Will they turn out at the polls this November? 

Back to top
Skills Sheets (1)
Read Aloud