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Legislation which combines a long-term omnibus spending bill with a shorter-term continuing resolution.

Marketplace: “It’s that time of year again. No, not the holidays, but Congress’ annual maneuvering to pass a budget. It has to figure out a way to keep the government running beyond Dec. 11, when current funding runs out. A lot of terms have been used to describe this annual ritual. Remember fiscal cliff? Now there’s a new one: Cromnibus. It’s part omnibus – that is, a long-term funding bill – and part continuing resolution, or CR – for short-term funding. CR plus omnibus equals cromnibus.”

poison the well

A rhetorical device often used by politicians where adverse information is pre-emptively presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing what another politician intends to say.

The origin of the term lies in well poisoning, an old wartime practice of pouring poison into sources of fresh water before an invading army, to diminish the attacking army’s strength.

wave election

When one political party makes major gains in the United States House and Senate and the other has few losses.

Mark Barabak: “There is no authoritative definition of a wave election. (Which is not to be confused with a realigning election, like those in 1932 and 1968, in which a party forges a new and enduring presidential coalition.) A wave election is commonly considered one in which a political party wins a large and lopsided number of House and Senate seats while sustaining minimal losses.”

“In the past 20 years, there have been several wave elections of that type, including 1994 when Republicans netted 54 House and 10 Senate seats; 2006 when Democrats won 31 House and six Senate seats; 2008 when Democrats gained 21 House and eight Senate seats, and—most spectacularly—the last midterm vote, in 2010, when the GOP won 63 House seats and four in the Senate.”

Jacob Smith: “Unfortunately — and surprisingly given the widespread use of this term — there is not a precise definition of this concept. To try to correct this, I have developed my own definition that combines both scholarly rigor with the basic intuition of a wave election being a ‘big win’ for one side at the expense of the other.”

“Specifically, I define a ‘wave election’ to be a congressional election that (1) produces the potential for a political party to significantly affect the political status quo as (2) the result of a substantial increase in seats for that party.”

Charlie Cook says wave elections are usually the result of a “overarching, nationwide dynamic.”


A con artist or someone who swindles people out of money through fraud and deception. In politics, the term has been used to describe those who use the political process to enrich themselves.

Former Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-OH), writing for Politico, noted that today’s political grifters “are a lot like the grifters of old—lining their pockets with the hard-earned money of working men and women be promising things in return that they know they can’t deliver.”

“Political grifting is a lucrative business. Groups like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots are run by men and women who have made millions by playing on the fears and anger about the dysfunction in Washington… These people have lined their pockets by promising that if you send them money, they will send men and women to Washington who can ‘fix it.’ Of course, in the ultimate con, the always extreme and often amateurish candidates these groups back either end up losing to Democrats or they come to Washington and actually make the process even more dysfunctional… The grifting wing of the party promises that you can have ideological purity—that you don’t have to compromise—and, of course, all you have to do is send them money to make it happen.”

Mike Lupica: “You could call people like this the brand new Washington generation of the boys of Tammany Hall, except that in another New York, Tammany Hall was actually known for providing services, starting with jobs. That’s how those boys got the vote in the old days, how they kept their power. Something else separates Tammany Hall from the current U.S. Senate. In old New York, they did their skimming out in the open and never tried to pretend they were doing something noble.”

Fancy Farm

An annual picnic in Fancy Farm, Kentucky that has come to represent the traditional starting point of the fall campaign season in Kentucky. The gathering attracts statewide and occasionally national candidates and is held on the first Saturday in August.

The picnic was mainly a local affair until A. B. “Happy” Chandler began making appearances, going for the first time in 1931 while running for Lieutenant Governor. So many Kentucky politicians now attend that it tends to only be news when a major politician decides not to make an appearance.

Said Chandler in an interview: “I guess I was one of the first candidates for statewide office to ever go to Fancy Farm. I ended my 1931 campaign for lieutenant governor down there. I won that election and thought Fancy Farm was good luck, so I kept going back.”

Sam Youngman: “Politically speaking, there are two main attractions at Fancy Farm: The specter of a career-ending gaffe hanging over every politician who takes the stage, and the crowd, half of which is trying to will that gaffe to happen through endless heckling and occasional chants.”

The Louisville Courier Journal has a good video explainer of the event.

Chicago-style politics

Used to characterize a supposedly offensive tough, “take-no-prisoners” approach to politics.

Jacob Weisberg: “Chicago-style politics, in common parlance, refers to the 1950s-1970s era of the Richard J. Daley machine… The strength and durability of the Daley machine was its ethnically based patronage network, a complex system of obligations, benefits, and loyalties that didn’t depend on televised communication with a broader public. It was a noncompetitive system that in its heyday had a lock on urban power and the spoils that went with it.”

Don Rose: “Time was the term ‘Chicago politics’ or ‘Chicago-style politics’ had a special meaning based on our history from the Al Capone years through the regime (1955-76) of one Richard J. Daley, aka Da Mare. Nowadays, like our unique political lexicon, it seems to have become a generic insult for just about any politics one disagrees with.”

ego wall

A wall where people flaunt their political connections by displaying photos of themselves with more famous people.

The phenomenon is also sometimes called the “glory wall” or “me wall.”

Mike Nichols: “The ego wall is where the politician hangs pictures of himself or herself beside other, more famous politicians. It is why, when a president flies into town, there are usually about 495 lesser politicians waiting on the tarmac. They want a picture for the ego wall.”

Slate: “Lobbyists have glory walls in the office to impress clients. Staffers have them to impress other staffers. Socialites have their glory walls on the piano… For aspiring Washingtonians, the glory wall allows you to brag about conversations you never really had with the chief justice and intimacies you never really shared with the president.”


To attack a person’s reputation and views.

The term was popularized by the Wall Street Journal editorial page after the Senate rejected the nomination of Robert Bork the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987.

Bork himself later discussed the origination of the term in a 2005 interview with Frank Sesno on CNN:

BORK: Well, I knew what was happening. The core of the issue was, they were afraid I would vote to overrule Roe against Wade. And they were quite right.

SESNO: And your name became a verb.

BORK: My name became a verb. And I regard that as one form of immortality.

SESNO: To Bork means what?

BORK: I think to attack with — to attack a person’s reputation and views unfairly.

nut-cutting time

The point when you have tried everything but failed.

While the term originally refers to the effort required to remove a rusted or stripped nut, it has come to be used in a legislative context as the time to exert maximum effort to round up votes to get a bill passed due to an approaching deadline.

While the term did not originally refer to castration, many have used that as its double-meaning in a political context.


The junior members in the British House of Commons who occupy the back benches of Parliament, sitting behind party leaders and top government officials.

BBC: “Backbenchers are also sometimes known as private members and thus a backbencher can introduce an original idea for legislation in the form of a Private Member’s Bill. Backbenchers have more freedom to speak as they are not as constrained by loyalty to the government. This can also pose problems for the party whips who try to impose party discipline.”

The term has also come to refer to the rank-and-file members of the U.S. Congress who are not part of their party’s leadership.


Someone who expresses doubt or excessive worry about a political outcome.

ABC News reports that David Plouffe, President Obama’s former campaign manager and top political adviser, first coined the term in 2008 when Democrats began openly fretting about their political challenges.

Plouffe used the term again before the 2010 midterm elections in a Washington Post op-ed when he urged “no bed-wetting” among Democrats: “This will be a tough election for our party and for many Republican incumbents as well. Instead of fearing what may happen, let’s prove that we have more than just the brains to govern — that we have the guts to govern.”


A term coined for a Saturday Night Live sketch mocking George W. Bush and his reputation for mispronouncing words during the first presidential debate in 2000.

Comedian Will Ferrell played Bush in the sketch and was asked by the debate moderator to summarize “the best argument for his campaign.” His answer was “strategery.”

After the 2000 presidential election, the Washington Post reported that Bush staffers reportedly began using the term as a joke and even referred to the president’s political team as “The Department of Strategery.”

Bush himself used the term in a 2001 interview with CNN, presumably as a self-deprecating nod to the comedy sketch.

firehouse primary

A primary to select candidates what is run by a political party and not the state.

Similar to a party canvas, a firehouse primary allows the party to keep control of the nominating process while allowing more participation than a party caucus. Participants generally arrive at multiple polling places anytime during announced polling hours, cast a secret ballot, and then leave.

William Safire noted the earliest in print reference to a firehouse primary was a 1990 Washington Times article about the selection of Democratic Party candidates for the county board in Arlington, Va.


The practice of setting music to awkward, B-roll footage of a politician.

The term was coined after Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) re-election campaign in 2014 posted a two-and-a-half minute video of the senator campaigning set simply to music. As Time points out, the footage “was most likely placed there for outside PACs supportive of McConnell to use, a practice circumventing campaign finance rules barring coordination used by both Republicans and Democrats.”

The Daily Show coined the term “McConnelling” and provided a few hilarious examples, putting the footage of McConnell to Salt-n-Pepa’s “Whatta Man,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”

Said host Jon Stewart: “Here’s the secret. It works with every song that has the word ‘eyes’ in it.”


To travel around the country or state making political appearances during a political campaign. The phrase was first used when pilots would travel around the country to entertain with their flying skills.

All-Things-Aviation: “A typical barnstormer (or a group of barnstormers) would travel across to a village, borrow a field from a farmer for the day and advertise their presence in the town by flying several low passes over it – roaring over the main street at full throttle. The appearance of the barnstormers was akin to a national holiday. Entire towns were shut down and people would flock to the fields purchasing tickets for the show and plane rides. Locals, most of them never having seen planes before, would be thrilled by the experience. In several towns parties would be organized on such occasions in the honor of the barnstormers.” Now the word has come to mean a political speech given on the road.”


A nickname for Louisiana Gov. Huey Long because of his larger-than-life status in Louisiana. He was assassinated in 1935.

The Social Security website states that: “A farm boy from the piney woods of North Louisiana, he was colorful, charismatic, controversial, and always just skating on the edge. He gave himself the nickname “Kingfish” because, he said, “I’m a small fish here in Washington. But I’m the Kingfish to the folks down in Louisiana.”

goo goo

Short for “good government guys,” referring to people who would fight for government reform.

This was used during the 1970s as a derisive term for those who were fighting to clean up city municipalities. James Merriner writes that the phrase was “attributed to Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun in the late nineteenth century. Goo goo might have originally been applied to members of the Good Government Association of Boston, energized by Harvard reformers in suburban Cambridge.”

kangaroo ticket

A ticket for an election in which the lower position is occupied by a more attractive candidate than the higher position.

The Chicago Tribune defines it “a combination of nominees in which the running mate is more appealing than the presidential candidate (possibly coined to refer to a kangaroo’s propulsion from its hind legs, or to the weight it carries in its bottom half).”

The phrase originated during the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Democratic party leaders wanted a more experienced nomination.  As Salon notes, “The choice of John Nance Garner, Speaker of the House, for the second spot on the ticket exacerbated the problem. The popular Texan was much better known and more experienced than Roosevelt. One disappointed Texas colleague complained, ‘It’s a kangaroo ticket. Stronger in the hindquarters than in the front.'”

The Great Mentioner

The phenomenon whereby certain people are “mentioned” to journalists as possible candidates for higher office.

Scott Simon of National Public Radio explained: “The late Art Buchwald used to talk about the Great Mentioner — some unnamed person who told pundits and reporters a lot of people say this, a lot of people say that. Art said that if you trace back exactly who said this and that, it was usually just the reporters and analysts themselves that tried to splash a coat of credibility over sheer speculation by putting it in the mouth of the Great Mentioner.”

Ryan Lizza attributes the term to New York Times columnist Russell Baker who used it “to describe the mysterious source who plucks politicians from obscurity and mentions them to political journalists as contenders for higher office.”


Attempting to diminish a political foe by likening his or her words to remarks on “legitimate rape” made by former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) while seeking a U.S. Senate seat in 2012.

Bill Lambrecht: “Akinize has been used often to describe political attacks since those remarks about rape and pregnancy effectively scuttled Akin’s political ambition. Google finds Akinize 15,000 times.”

nuclear option

When the presiding officer of the U.S. Senate disregards a rule or precedent.

This most commonly refers to an effort by the Senate to end a filibuster by a simple majority, even though rules specify that ending a filibuster requires the consent of at least 60 senators.

An opinion written by Vice President Richard Nixon in 1957 concluded that the U.S. Constitution grants the presiding officer the authority to override Senate rules in this way. If a majority vote to uphold the presiding officer, his interpretation of the rules becomes a precedent.

Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) first called the option “nuclear” in March 2003, using the metaphor of a nuclear strike to suggest it might provoke retaliation by the minority party.

plausible deniability

The ability to deny blame because evidence does not exist to confirm responsibility for an action. The lack of evidence makes the denial credible, or plausible. The use of the tactic implies forethought, such as intentionally setting up the conditions to plausibly avoid responsibility for one’s future actions.

The term was coined by the CIA in the 1960s to describe the withholding of information from senior officials in order to protect them from repercussions in the event that certain activities by the CIA became public.

Hastert rule

A philosophy that requires the “majority of the majority” to bring up a bill for a vote in the House of Representatives.

Republicans have used this rule consistently since Speaker Dennis Hastert wielded it in the mid-1990s to effectively limit the power of the minority party. Democrats were prevented from passing bills with the assistance of a small number of members of the majority party.

six year itch

The election held in the 6th year of a president’s tenure in which the party holding the White House historically loses a substantial number of House and Senate seats.

The Atlantic: “For decades political analysts have been intrigued by an ironclad pattern in American politics: the President’s party loses seats in the off-year election that follows his White House triumph–a phenomenon that has occurred in every off-year election save one since the Civil War. Since the Second World War, off-year losses for the President’s party in the House have averaged fifteen seats in the second year and forty-eight in the sixth; in the Senate the average losses are zero in the second year and seven in the sixth.”

Charlie Cook: “There are a variety of reasons, but at that midway point in a party’s second four years in the White House, the ‘in’ party tends to lose energy and focus. Party leaders run out of ideas, and the ‘first team’ in terms of personnel—the people who were there when the president took office—have often bailed out, and the second or third team is sometimes not as good. Voters tend to grow weary and to look for something different.”

elastic state

A state whose voting outcome in a presidential election is relatively sensitive or responsive to changes in political conditions, such as a change in the national economic mood.

Nate Silver: “Elastic states are those which have a lot of swing voters — that is, voters who could plausibly vote for either party’s candidate. A swing voter is very likely to be an independent voter, since registered Republicans and registered Democrats vote with their party at least 90 percent of the time in most presidential elections. The swing voter is also likely to be devoid of other characteristics that are very strong predictors of voting behavior.”

An inelastic state, by contrast, is one which is relatively insensitive to these changes.

deduct box

The locked box where legendary Louisiana Gov. Huey Long kept “deducts” from state employee salaries to fund his political operation.

Estimates suggest Long collected between $50,000 to $75,000 each election cycle from government workers. The deduct box was kept at his Roosevelt Hotel headquarters in New Orleans.

After being shot in 1935, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports Long was asked on his deathbed by Roosevelt Hotel owner Seymour Weiss, “Huey, where is the deduct box?” Before falling into a coma, Long responded, “I’ll tell you later, Seymour.”

The deduct box was never found.

press gaggle

An informal briefing by the White House press secretary that is on the record but video recording is not allowed. It can occur anywhere, such as on Air Force One, but it often describes the informal interactions between the press and the press secretary that occur before a formal White House briefing.

The term likens the members of the press corps to  a “gaggle of geese” honking.

Washington Monthly: “Gaggles historically refer to informal briefings the press secretary conducts with the press pool rather than the entire press corps. They used to happen in the morning, they were more or less off the record, and their purpose was mostly to exchange information – the president’s schedule and briefing schedule, from the administration side; heads-up on likely topics or early comment on pressing issues, from the news side. Briefings were what everybody knows them to be.”


Democrats In Name Only (DINO) is a disparaging term that refers to a Democratic candidate whose political views are seen as insufficiently conforming to the party line.

suspended campaign

Federal law does not define or officially recognize the act of a presidential candidate “suspending” their campaign instead of formally ending it.

CNN: “Practically speaking, if a candidate removes him- or herself from the race without the intent of re-entering at a later date, then there is not a big difference between ‘suspending’ a campaign vs. dropping out entirely. The end result is usually the same: the candidate is no longer seeking that particular office… That said, there are two main differences between ‘suspending’ and ending a presidential campaign: delegates and money.”

Candidates who suspend their campaigns usually get to keep any delegates they’ve won and can continue to raise money beyond what’s needed to retire their campaign debts. In contrast, candidates who actually drop out of a race, usually have to forfeit certain delegates and are limited in how they can raise future funds.

Slate: “The phrase has been employed at least as far back as the 1970s and continues to serve as the most popular way for candidates to end their primary bids without closing down their campaign committees.”

stalking horse

A candidate put forward in an election to conceal an anonymous person’s potential candidacy. If the idea of the campaign proves viable, the anonymous person can then declare their interest and run with little risk of failure.

A stalking horse candidate is also sometimes used to divide the opposition in order to help another candidate.

Daryl Lyman: “The expression originated hundreds of years ago in old English hunting practices, especially among fowlers. Many kinds of game that would flee at the first sign of humans would not be alarmed by the approach of a horse. Therefore, fowlers trained horses to serve as covers during hunting.”

Dorothy Dixer

A planted or pre-arranged question asked of a government minister by a backbencher of his or her own political party during Parliamentary Question Time.

The term refers to American advice columnist Dorothy Dix’s reputed practice of making up her own questions to allow her to publish more interesting answers.

The term has been used in Australian politics since the 1950s, and has become increasingly common in everyday usage, but interestingly is virtually unknown in other countries where Dix’s advice column was equally popular.


An acronym for “get out the vote.”

The process by which a political party or campaign urges its supporters to vote in the immediately approaching election.

hiking the Appalachian Trail

Euphemism for a politician who claims to be doing one thing but in reality went to meet with his mistress.

The term was coined after South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) went missing in 2009, claiming that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when in reality he was in Argentina with his mistress.


A political tactic of joining an organization with which you do not agree with the intention of changing it from the inside.

In his 1959 book Masters of Deceit, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described entryist tactics by Soviet agents to infiltrate school boards, trade unions, and major party precinct organizations.


The spread of secret, often unfavorable, news about a politician to the media by someone in his or her inner circle.

Some leaks by politicians are intentional, also called a trial balloon, so that they can judge the reaction to a proposed policy change before publicly committing to the new position.


Political fundraisers who can collect contributions from their networks of friends, family members and business associates and then deliver the checks to the candidate in one big “bundle.” Campaigns often recognize these bundlers with honorary titles.

Bundling has always existed in various forms, but has become more important with the enactment of limits on campaign contributions at the federal level and in most states during the 1970s.

brokered convention

A brokered convention occurs when there are not enough delegates “won” during the presidential primaries for a single candidate to have a majority during the first official vote at a party’s nominating convention. The nomination is then decided though political deals between candidates, party bosses and subsequent votes until one candidate receives a majority.

Before the era of presidential primaries, political party conventions were routinely brokered. The most recent brokered convention nominees were Adlai Stevenson at the 1952 Democratic convention and Thomas Dewey at the 1948 Republican convention.

More recently, a brokered convention is mostly just a political junkie’s fantasy. The modern party primary system almost always determines an overwhelming winner of delegates. And as David Frum notes, it’s hard to imagine a “brokered convention” when there is no such thing as political “brokers” any more. Elected delegates to a convention aren’t going to be swayed by political leaders deciding the nominee in a backroom.

A brokered convention was portrayed in the film The Best Man starring Henry Fonda.

Godwin’s Law

An observation made by Mike Godwin in Wired in 1990 which states:

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

Friday news dump

Releasing bad news or documents on a Friday afternoon in an attempt to avoid media scrutiny.

NPR: “Often, the White House sets the release of bad news and unflattering documents to late Friday afternoon. The Pentagon and other agencies also use the practice, a legacy of earlier administrations.”

The television show The West Wing had an episode on the technique called, “Take out the trash day.”

Donna: What’s take out the trash day?
Josh: Friday.
Donna: I mean, what is it?
Josh: Any stories we have to give the press that we’re not wild about, we give all in a lump on Friday.
Donna: Why do you do it in a lump?
Josh: Instead of one at a time?
Donna: I’d think you’d want to spread them out.
Josh: They’ve got X column inches to fill, right? They’re going to fill them no matter what.
Donna: Yes.
Josh: So if we give them one story, that story’s X column inches.
Donna: And if we give them five stories …
Josh: They’re a fifth the size.
Donna: Why do you do it on Friday?
Josh: Because no one reads the paper on Saturday.
Donna: You guys are real populists, aren’t you?

smell of jet fuel

A reference to the impatience that sets in when Members of Congress are ready to leave Washington, D.C. to return to their districts for the weekend or a legislative recess.

pen and pad briefing

A press briefing held by lawmakers or White House officials at which video and photography is not allowed.

While reporters used to gather around the person doing the briefing with their pads of paper and pens, they now typically use a voice recorder.

ping pong

Reconciling the differences between a House-passed bill and a Senate-passed bill by amendments between the chambers, rather than forming a conference committee.

The New Republic: “With ping-ponging, the chambers send legislation back and forth to one another until they finally have an agreed-upon version of the bill. But even ping-ponging can take different forms and some people use the term generically to refer to any informal negotiations.”

jungle primary

A primary election in which all candidates for elected office run in the same primary regardless of political party.

Also known as the “Nonpartisan Blanket Primary” or “Top Two Primary”, the top two candidates who receive the most votes advance to the next round, similar to a runoff election. However, there is no separate nomination process for candidates before the first round, and parties cannot narrow the field. In fact, it is entirely possible that two candidates of the same party could advance to the second round. For this reason, it’s not surprising that the parties haven’t rushed to embrace jungle primaries because they ultimately reduce their power.

Mae West hold

A type of Senate hold nicknamed because of the senator’s implied desire to make a deal, rather than block a legislative action entirely.

The reference to movie star Mae West alludes to her frequently misquoted line from the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”  The senator implies that those who wish to clear the hold are welcome to visit his office and negotiate.

tag-team hold

A means by which two or more senators agree to circumvent a 2011 resolution limiting secret senate holds to two days.

One senator will inform his party leader of his intent to place a hold.  Before two days pass, the senator will withdraw his hold, at which time his tag-team partner submits a new hold request.  The senators rotate in this manner, and the identity of neither is revealed.

Senate hold

The means by which a senator informally signals his objection to a bill or nomination.

Most congressional actions clear parliamentary hurdles by “unanimous consent” of the Senate, so a senator who intends to object to such procedures can, effectively, hold up the action.  He may announce his intentions publicly or, more frequently, inform his party leader and place a “secret hold” on an action.  Holds have become more common since the 1970s, when the Senate began using many more unanimous consent agreements to advance a greater volume of legislation, and opponents have suggested many changes to reform or abolish the practice.

The most recent challenges to this custom include a 2010 letter in which 69 senators pledged not to place holds and a 2011 resolution declaring that, in the case of secret holds, either a senator’s identity is revealed after two days or the hold is assigned to the party leader.  The latter of these reforms has been easily circumvented by the tag-team hold.

front-porch campaign

A low-key campaign in which the candidate remains close to home and gives speeches but largely does not travel or otherwise actively campaign.

The best known examples were the presidential campaigns of James Garfield in 1880, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and William McKinley in 1896.

gotcha question

A question posed by a reporter in an effort to trick a politician into looking stupid or saying something damaging.

New York magazine: “When it does happen, they are often quick to blame their boneheaded remarks not on themselves, but on the inherently deceitful nature of the gotcha question itself. ‘If only this question had been posed differently, I would have provided the most accurate, comprehensive, and socially acceptable response man has ever known,’ they seem to contend. It’s a time-honored damage-control strategy employed by Sarah Palin more often than probably anyone else — not only in her own defense, but also in the defense of other Republicans.”

Richards effect

The phenomenon in which polls consistently underestimate support for female candidates relative to white male candidates.

The termed was coined by political scientists Christopher Stout and Reuben Kline who noted that in the 1990 Texas gubernatorial race many polls predicted Clayton Williams (R) to beat Ann Richards (D) by as much as 8 points. However, Clayton’s “lead” evaporated on election day and Richards won.

From their research paper: “Perhaps it was not only the traditional polling problems that led polls to be less accurate, Ann Richards’ gender may have also played a vital role in these polling discrepancies. Our results indicate that female candidates, and in particular female candidates from gender-conservative states, like Ann Richards in Texas, tend to do worse in pre-election polls than in actual elections.”

professional left

Left-leaning pundits, paid activists, and heads of liberal institutions.

The term “professional left” was coined by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs in an interview with The Hill when he dismissed the concerns of liberals frustrated with President Obama: “I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested. I mean, it’s crazy. They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that Gibbs later clarified he was primarily referring to the people “who chatter on cable TV news.”

Sister Souljah moment

The public repudiation of an extremist person or statement perceived to have some association with a politician or his party.

It’s a strategy designed to signal to centrist voters to show that the politician is not beholden to traditional, and sometimes unpopular, interest groups associated with the party.

Robert Schlesinger: “Back in the summer of 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton criticized rapper Sister Souljah after she made offensive remarks about blacks killing whites instead of each other. The moment quickly entered the political lexicon as shorthand for a politician rebuking an extremist in his or her base in order to demonstrate to independents that they are not beholden to the party’s core special interests.”

Joan Vennochi: “This so-called ‘Sister Souljah moment’ — a calculated denunciation of an extremist position or special interest group — wrapped Clinton in a warm centrist glow just in time for the general election.”

honest graft

Taking advantage of the money-making opportunities that might arise while holding public office.

Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt defined “dishonest graft” as actual theft from the public treasury or taking bribes for making certain public decisions. “Honest graft,” however, simply meant pursuing the public interest and one’s personal interests at the same time. For instance, Plunkitt made most of his money through land purchases, which he knew would be needed for public projects. He would buy such parcels, then resell them at an inflated price.

Said Plunkitt in a famous defense of his actions: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

cracker vote

Native Floridian white voters, whose families have typically lived in the state for generations.

Former President Bill Clinton told CNN in late 2008 that he would travel to Florida on behalf of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign: “If we’re trying to win in Florida, it may be that — you know, they think that because of who I am and where my political base has traditionally been, they may want me to go sort of hustle up what Lawton Chiles used to call the ‘cracker vote’ there.”

Though the term “cracker” often has racial overtones, the Weekly Standard notes that Chiles used the word in a non-pejorative manner, including at least once during a 1996 campaign event with Clinton: “I know this fella from Arkansas. And I can tell you he knows how to speak cracker.”

fifth column

A treasonous group who secretly undermine a nation from within.

The term was coined by the Nationalist General Emilio Mola Vidal during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). As four of his army columns moved on Madrid, he referred to his militant supporters within the capital as a “fifth column,” who weakened the loyalist government with a campaign of sabotage and uprisings.


Political propaganda, usually espousing a left-wing ideology and disseminated through literature or performing arts.

The term is derived from the combination of the words “agitation” and “propaganda” and originally came from Soviet Russia as a shortened name for the Department of Agitation and Propaganda set up by the Communist Party of the USSR.

The word had no negative connotations in Russia, meaning simply the “dissemination of ideas,” but in Western countries it became synonymous with activities that encouraged acceptance of left-wing ideology.


A false, dirty or slanderous story used for political advantage, usually about a candidate seeking political office.

In 1940 the Chicago Tribune offered this definition: “A roorback is a false report about some alleged misdeed in a candidate’s past, often based on forged evidence, circulated in the final days of a campaign. It is timed for climactic effect when the candidate will not be able to expose the fraud before the voters go to the polls.”

According to Museum of Hoaxes, the term is derived from Baron von Roorback, the invented author of an imaginary book, Roorback’s Tour Through the Western and Southern States, from which a passage was purportedly quoted in an attempt to defame Tennessee Gov. James K. Polk in the 1844 presidential election.


A sudden reversal of opinion or policy by a politician, usually running for office.

NPR notes the term “has been a fixture in popular American parlance at least since the 1880s. A New York Tribune writer in 1888 called out President Grover Cleveland for his ‘Fisheries flip-flop,’ presumably referring to Cleveland’s handling of the fishery treaty that governed waters shared by American and Canadian vessels and perhaps making wordplay on the way fish flop and flip on a boat deck. And in 1892, the New York Times pointed to the ‘flip-flop antics’ of John Boyd Thacher, the once-and-future mayor of Albany.”

Matthew Cooper: “Somewhere along the way, the charge of flip-flopping became one of the deadliest in politics—the shorthand for a lack of character. By contrast, a politician who didn’t change his or her mind, or who vowed to be uninterested in polls, was considered to be of a higher caliber. But there is a case for flip-flopping, or what might be called being human. After all, almost anyone with common sense has probably evolved on some position or another.”


The creation of fake Twitter profiles to show support for a political candidate.

Bill White described the practice in an Texas Monthly interview about his 2010 race against Texas Gov. Rick Perry: “There were also some silly things that happened that are still hard to believe. One consulting firm of his created artificial people to tweet. [The campaign] wanted to question my support in the African American community, but they couldn’t recruit an African American person to do it, so on Twitter they used a stock photo of a black person. One of the people who supported my campaign clicked on the image and found out it was a singer from Atlanta. The Twitter address was registered at the same location as one of Mr. Perry’s political consultants.”

Derived by Rick Hasen, with inspiration from Ben Smith, from the term Astroturfing.

Washington Monument strategy

Named after a tactic used by the National Park Service to threaten closure of the popular Washington Monument when lawmakers proposed serious cuts in spending on parks.

Roll Call calls it “an old legislative ploy where an agency threatens to close popular services first.”

The strategy is used at all levels of government in an attempt to get the public to rally around government services they take pride in or find useful. Closing libraries on certain days of the week or reducing days of trash pick up  appears to have the same effect.

Washington Read

The Washington Read “is the phenomenon by which, through a form of intellectual osmosis, a book is absorbed into the Washington atmosphere,” according to the Washingtonian, magazine.

“According to former White House speechwriter Dan McGroarty, to qualify as a Washington Read, a book not only has to be ambitious; it also needs ‘to be a book one would feel pressure to have read, and read early.’ This need to be ahead of the curve, coupled with demanding jobs that leave little time for reading, pushes people toward the Washington Read.”

The term is not to be confused with the Index Scan, which is when someone glances over the credits and footnotes to see if they’re mentioned.

money blurt

A strategy of using a politician’s controversial statements to attract a large number of campaign donors.

Washington Post: “Here’s how it works: An up-and-coming politician blurts out something incendiary, provocative or otherwise controversial. The remark bounces around the blogs and talk shows and becomes a sensation. And in the midst of it all, the politician’s fundraisers are manning the phones and raking in the donations.”

“The phenomenon marks another phase in the quest for money in politics, fueled by the eternal hum of the Internet, social media and 24-hour cable news… The money blurt — spontaneous or not — is a close cousin to a technique called the ‘money bomb,’ in which a campaign or its supporters designate a specific day or time period to raise a vast amount of cash and generate publicity.”

Spin Alley

The place designated after a political debate where reporters interview analysts and campaign operatives who attempt to “spin” the news coverage of the event.

A video from the 2008 presidential campaign shows what “spin alley” looked like after a debate in New Hampshire.

Political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow: “After the debate, I took the press shuttle back to the media center — and to the small section therein blatantly designated ‘Spin Alley,’ ringed on three sides by bare-bones makeshift broadcast platforms and stuffed to capacity with reporters, camera crews and politicos. Everywhere you looked there were clusters of media people surrounding spinners and surrogates, whose names were printed on laminated red signs held high above the crowd by aides. I felt like I was standing in the middle of one of my own damn cartoons come to life.”

money bomb

An intense grassroots online fundraising effort over a brief fixed time period to support a candidate for election.

The term was first applied to a fundraising effort on behalf of the 2008 presidential campaign of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) which the San Jose Mercury News described at the time as “a one-day fundraising frenzy”.

Political consultant Ed Rollins described the effectiveness of Paul’s money bomb to the Washington Post: “I’ll tell you, I’ve been in politics for 40 years, and these days everything I’ve learned about politics is totally irrelevant because there’s this uncontrollable thing like the Internet. Washington insiders don’t know what to make of it.”

Rose Garden campaign

When an incumbent politician uses the trappings of office to project an image of power for the purposes of re-election.

The phrase originally referred to a president staying on the grounds of the White House to campaign as opposed to traveling throughout the country. However, it’s taken on a broader meaning in recent years.

For example, the New York Times notes President George H.W. Bush carried out a “Rose Garden strategy” for the 1992 campaign: “Sometimes the strategy puts the President in the Rose Garden, as it did this morning, and sometimes it takes him on the road, as it will to Pennsylvania on Thursday. But it always has one aim: to lift Mr. Bush’s political fortunes by wrapping him in the trappings of his office and having him take steps to demonstrate, as one political aide put it, that ‘he is the man in charge and the others are just wannabe’s.'”


A dummymander is a gerrymander by one party “that, over the course of the decade, benefits the other party, and actually looks as if it was designed by that party rather than the party in power.”

The term was coined by Bernard Grofman and Thomas Brunell in their article, “The Art of the Dummymander.”


A by-election is an election held to fill a political office that has become vacant between regularly scheduled elections. It’s also frequently referred to as a special election.

Typically, a by-election occurs when the incumbent has resigned or died, but it may also occur in the case of a recall or as a result of election results being invalidated by voting irregularities.


An unethical fundraising tactic where a telemarketer falsely claims to be a researcher conducting a poll, when in reality the “researcher” is attempting to solicit a donation.

The Washington Post cites Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions advocacy group as example: “According to complaints on consumer-focused Web sites, some American Solutions calls begin with slanted polling questions before proceeding to a request for money. The tactic, known as ‘fundraising under the guise of research,’ or frugging, is discouraged as unethical by trade groups such as the Marketing Research Association.”

Candy Desk

In 1965, Sen. George Murphy (R-CA) originated the practice of keeping a supply of candy in his desk for the enjoyment of his colleagues. In every Congress since that time a candy desk has been located in the back row of the Republican side, on the aisle and adjacent to the Chamber’s most heavily used entrance.

invisible primary

The period between when a candidate announces their bid for public office and when the actual primaries take place.

It’s also sometimes called the “money primary” since candidates spend most of their time during this period raising money in an effort to show political strength.

Teflon-coated presidency

A president’s ability to deflect charges of corruption or scandal.

The term originates was coined by Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-CO) when she took to the House floor in 1983 and said of President Ronald Reagan: “He has been perfecting the Teflon-coated presidency: He sees to it that nothing sticks to him.”

Writing in USA Today two decades later, Schroeder explained she “got the idea of calling President Reagan the ‘Teflon president’ while fixing eggs for my kids. He had a Teflon coat like the pan.”

Steve Kornacki notes Schroeder’s characterization “was meant to be disparaging, but in coining the term ‘Teflon president,’ Schroeder actually identified a significant phenomenon in politics — the willingness of voters to excuse in some politicians shortcomings that they wouldn’t accept in most others.”

talking points

A clear and concise list of ideas making up a politician’s main arguments in a speech. They’re typically used as a guide and not read word-for-word.

William Safire noted that he first heard the phrase as a White House speechwriter when President Nixon would often say, “Never mind preparing formal remarks for this bunch, just give me a page of talking points.”

red herring

A political diversion which draws attention away from something of significance.

Michael Quinlan notes the term likely originates from an article published on February 14, 1807 by journalist William Cobbett in the Weekly Political Register. In a critique of the English press, which had mistakenly reported Napoleon’s defeat, Cobbett recounted that he had once used a red herring to deflect hounds in pursuit of a hare, adding “It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.”


Letters sent by lawmakers to agencies in an attempt to direct money to projects in their home districts.

Jacob Sullum: “While none of these requests is legally binding, agencies are loath to antagonize the legislators who approve their budgets, especially when they have added extra money with a specific project in mind. And unlike official earmarks, these indirect allocations are not explicitly tied to particular lawmakers in the text of legislation.”

The New York Times notes that lettermarking, “which takes place outside the Congressional appropriations process, is one of the many ways that legislators who support a ban on earmarks try to direct money back home.” Evidence of lawmakers using the process can only be obtained through time-consuming requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

You’re No Jack Kennedy

A phrase used to deflate politicians who are perceived as thinking too highly of themselves.

The words come from the 1988 vice presidential debate between Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX) and Sen. Dan Quayle (R-IN). When Quayle compared his relative youth to that of former President John F. Kennedy, Bentsen shot back, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Washington Post: “If one will be remembered for a single remark, as the recently departed Lloyd Bentsen is, let it be for the perfect put-down. Most of us never get to experience the joy of excoriating an opponent with a dead-on, devastating riposte. We always think of it too late.”

Cherokee Strip

From the Senate historian: “Occasionally one party maintains such an overwhelming majority that it has become necessary for majority party members to sit on the minority party side in the Senate Chamber. During the 60th Congress (1907-1909), 10 Republicans sat on the Democratic side, while during the 75th Congress (1937-1939), 13 Democrats sat on the Republican side. Such seating became known as the ‘Cherokee Strip,’ a reference to the region in Oklahoma, which was land belonging neither to the Indian Territory nor to the United States. By the 1930s, it had become the practice for senior senators to take front row, center aisle seats; junior majority party members who filled the “Cherokee Strip” were assigned either rear row or end seats on the minority party side.”

The last time a “Cherokee Strip” existed in the Senate Chamber was during the 76th Congress from 1939 to 1941. Six of the 69 Democratic senators sat with the 23 Republican and 4 Independent senators.

demon sheep

A sinister politician who pretends to be what he is not; related to the RINO species, according to Samuel Jacobs.

The term comes a widely-mocked political ad run by 2010 California U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina (R) which described her primary opponent as a “FCINO” (Fiscal Conservative In Name Only). He was portrayed as not just a wolf, but a demon with glowing eyes, in sheep’s clothing.


If the Senate initiates appropriations legislation, the House practice is to return it to the Senate with a blue piece of paper attached citing a constitutional infringement since all measures are supposed to originate in the House. The practice of returning such bills and amendments to the Senate without action is known as “blue-slipping.”

C-SPAN: “Without House action, Senate-initiated spending legislation cannot make it into law. So in practice, the Senate rarely attempts to initiate such bills anymore, and if it does, the House is diligent about returning them. Regardless of one’s opinion of the correct interpretation of the Constitutional provision, the House refusal to consider such Senate legislation settles the matter in practice.”

turkey farm

A government agency or department staffed primarily with political appointments and other patronage hires.

A Vanderbilt University study notes that “In every administration certain agencies acquire reputations as ‘turkey farms’ or ‘dead pools.’ Positions in these agencies get filled with less qualified administrators, often by presidents under pressure to find jobs for campaign staff, key donors, or well-connected job-seekers.”

After the Federal Emergency Management Agency was unprepared for the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew in 1989 and 1992, a federal report noted the agency “is widely viewed as a political dumping ground, ‘a turkey farm’…where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment.”

Election Administrator’s Prayer

“Please, please, please let the winners win big.” or “Lord, let this election not be close.”

Doug Lewis, Executive Director of the National Association of Election Officials, was quoted by USA Today using another variation in November 2000: “God, please let the winner win in a landslide.”

Election law professor Rick Hasen used the phrase in an op-ed for Australia’s Canberra Times in 2008 noting how the American electoral system “remains haunted by the ghost of the democratic meltdown of 2000, which culminated in a US Supreme Court decision that handed the presidency to George W. Bush…”

“The main bulwark against this kind of problem is not the American political establishment, which has proven itself incapable of enacting a fair and nonpartisan electoral system befitting a mature democracy. Instead, we put our faith in the law of numbers. We should all utter the US election administrator’s prayer: “Lord, let this election not be close.”

Incumbent Rule

A rule of thumb used by pollsters that says incumbents rarely get a higher percentage in the election than they receive in polls, and that voters still undecided on the very last poll tend to “break” disproportionately for the challenger.

Michael Barone: “The assumption has been that voters know an incumbent, and any voter who is not for him will vote against him.”

Polling Report: “It seems that undecided voters are not literally undecided, not straddling the fence unable to make a choice – the traditional interpretation. An early decision to vote for the incumbent is easier because voters know incumbents best. It helps to think of undecided voters as undecided about the incumbent, as voters who question the incumbent’s performance in office. Most or all voters having trouble with this decision appear to end up deciding against the incumbent.”

Nonetheless, empirical data suggests the rule may be a myth. Nate Silver notes that it is “extremely common for an incumbent come back to win re-election while having less than 50 percent of the vote in early polls.” In addition, “there is no demonstrable tendency for challengers to pick up a larger share of the undecided vote than incumbents.”


A derogatory term used to refer to supporters of the conservative “Tea Party” movement.

CBS News: “It’s the sort of word you might expect to hear from a smirking 14-year-old boy: Critics of the Tea Party movement like to refer to its members as ‘teabaggers,’ a reference to a sexual act known as ‘teabagging,’ which we’re going to refrain from explaining here. To give you an idea of both the meaning of the word and the juvenile way it gets used, consider this comment from MSNBC’s David Shuster: ‘…the teabaggers are full-throated about their goals. They want to give President Obama a strong tongue-lashing and lick government spending.'”

According to the Huffington Post, CNN’s Anderson Cooper also had fun with the term, noting “It’s hard to talk when you’re teabagging.”

Interestingly, President Barack Obama is quoted using the word in Jonathan Alter’s book The Promise: President Obama, Year One, noting that the unanimous House Republican vote against his economic stimulus bill “helped to create the tea-baggers and empowered that whole wing of the Republican Party to where it now controls the agenda for the Republicans.”

gypsy moth Republican

A pejorative term used by conservative Republicans to describe a moderate members of their party who represent a Northeastern or Midwestern urban part of the United States — an area that is also the habitat for the invasive Gypsy moth, which damages trees.

The implication is that the Gypsy moth Republicans damage the Republican Party by occasionally siding with Democrats.


The practice of rounding up contributions from friends and associates to bypass campaign finance limits.

San Antonio News-Express: “Welcome to the world of bundlers: a semi-secretive though perfectly legal practice in which super-duper fundraisers deliver bundles of campaign contributions to their favorite candidates that they induce, entice or, some would say, strong-arm others to make. Bundling allows candidates of both parties to finesse the federal caps on individual political contributions and allows the bundlers to gain more-than-ordinary access to presidents and presidential hopefuls.”


A term coined by Rep. Maury Maverick (D-TX) for obscure and euphemistic bureaucratic language.

World Wide Words: “He used the word in the New York Times Magazine on 21 May 1944, while he was chairman of the US Smaller War Plants Committee in Congress, as part of a complaint against the obscure language used by his colleagues. His inspiration, he said, was the turkey, ‘always gobbledy gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity’. The word met a clear need and quickly became part of the language. It is sometimes abbreviated slightly to gobbledygoo.”


Empty or nonsense talk.

In 1820, Rep. Felix Walker from Ashville, North Carolina justified his long-winded and somewhat irrelevant remarks about the Missouri Compromise by arguing that his constituents had elected him “to make a speech for Buncombe.” One member said that his pointless speech “was buncombe” and soon “buncombe” became synonymous with vacuous speech.

As the new meaning of buncombe grew in use, it was eventually shortened to the now familiar word “bunk.”

Bradley effect

A theory that seeks to explain discrepancies between opinion polls and election outcomes when a white and black candidate run against each other.

Newsweek: “The Bradley effect is named after Tom Bradley, the former Los Angeles mayor who, in 1982, narrowly lost a bid to become California’s governor after having led substantially in the polls. The same pattern reflected itself in other instances involving African-American candidates: Douglas Wilder underperformed his polling in 1989 (but still narrowly won the Virginia governor’s race), as did David Dinkins in the New York mayoral race that same year. The theory goes that, in these races, white voters wanted to appear politically correct by telling pollsters they were going to vote for a black candidate when, in fact, they were not prepared to do so.”

heck of a job

A complete and total screw-up. It’s used, ironically, to show when one’s view of a situation is in contradiction to easily-observed facts.

The phrase comes from President George W. Bush who visited Louisiana in the aftermath of  Hurricane Katrina and told FEMA chief Michael D. Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Brown later admitted to Politics Daily he winced when Bush told him that: “I knew the minute he said that, the media and everybody else would see a disconnect between what he was saying and what I was witnessing on the ground. That’s the president’s style. His attitude and demeanor is always one of being a cheerleader and trying to encourage people to keep moving. It was just the wrong time and the wrong place.”

Brown resigned ten days after he was praised by Bush.


Good government groups that support political reform.

The term was first used by detractors of political reformers in the late 19th century when urban municipal governments were controlled by political machines. It’s still used today as a slightly derisive label for modern day reformers.

Eleventh Commandment

A phrase used by Ronald Reagan during his 1966 gubernatorial campaign in California, which read: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

It was created by California Republican Party Chairman Gaylord Parkinson to stop liberal California Republicans from labeling Reagan an extremist as they did to Barry Goldwater two years earlier in the 1964 presidential election. The phrase evidently worked as Republicans united to help elect Reagan as governor.

permanent campaign

First explored by Sidney Blumenthal in his 1980 book, The Permanent Campaign, which explained how the breakdown in political parties forced politicians to govern in different ways. Instead of relying on patronage and party machines, politicians increasingly used political consultants to help them monitor their job approval numbers and media exposure.

However, the theory of the permanent campaign is also credited to political strategist Patrick Caddell who wrote a memo for President-elect Jimmy Carter just after his election in 1976 in which he asserted “governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.”

Time: “Thus Caddell gave a name — the Permanent Campaign — to a political mind-set that had been developing since the beginning of the television age. It has proved a radical change in the nature of the presidency. Every President since Lyndon Johnson has run his Administration from a political consultant’s eye view. Untold millions have been spent on polling and focus groups. Dick Morris even asked voters where Bill Clinton should go on vacation. The pressure to “win” the daily news cycle — to control the news — has overwhelmed the more reflective, statesmanlike aspects of the office.”

filling the tree

A procedure used by the Senate Majority Leader to offer a sufficient number of amendments on legislation to “fill the tree” so that no other senator can offer an amendment.

Congressional Institute: “By tradition, the Majority Leader is recognized first at the start of a debate. This enables the Leader, from time to time, to block the minority from offering any changes to a bill. To accomplish this, the Majority Leader fills the amendment tree with extraneous or meaningless amendments thereby blocking the introduction of any legitimate amendments by any other Senator (including those in his own party). It is a form of parliamentary obstruction used by the majority.”

flake rate

The percentage of people who volunteer with a campaign to canvass or phone bank and then don’t show up.

It’s used as a measure of complacency of a candidate’s supporters.

thrown under the bus

To sacrifice someone, typically one who is undeserving, in order to make political gain.

Newsweek: “In general, ‘thrown under the bus’ is a metaphor for what happens when someone takes a hit for someone else’s actions. But unlike its etymological cousins, ‘scapegoat’ and ‘fall guy,’ the phrase suggests a degree of intimacy between the blamer and the blamed.”

Word Detective: “I think the key to the phrase really lies in the element of utter betrayal, the sudden, brutal sacrifice of a stalwart and loyal teammate for a temporary and often minor advantage.”


Campaign gear such as bumper stickers, lawn signs, and campaign buttons.

The term is derived from the bait used to catch fish because in a political campaign these items are frequently used to entice volunteers and voters to get more involved in a campaign or bringing them to events.

Time notes that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s campaign “set up little tabletop trinket shops, known as ‘chum stores’ because all those little Obama-branded doodads aren’t only keepsakes; they are also bait. Every person who buys a button or hat is recorded as a campaign donor. But the real goal of the chum operations was building a list of workers, supporters and their e-mail addresses.”

push card

A small, easy access, wallet-sized campaign sign typically given to a potential voter during door-to-door canvassing or at an event.

They’re also sometimes called palm cards because they’re designed to be small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

strange bedfellows

An unusual political alliance.

The term comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest when a storm causes Trinculo to seek shelter under a sheet with Caliban, whom he regards as an enemy. “There is no other shelter hereabout: misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past.”


A rousing political speech that galvanizes a crowd to take action.

The Word Detective notes the term is “one of those grand old words that have traveled so far from their origins that nearly all traces of their beginnings have faded from popular culture.”

Slate: “The term dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when the stem-winding watch came into vogue. The newfangled timepiece was a vast improvement over its predecessor, the key-wound watch, because the mechanism for setting it was a stem actually attached to the watch, rather than a key that was easily and frequently misplaced. This technological advance was so widely appreciated that, by the end of the 1800s, the term stemwinder had taken on the figurative meaning of ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding,’ or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, ‘a person or thing that is first rate. …'”

political suicide

An unpopular action that is likely to cause a politician’s subsequent defeat at the polls or be cause for him or her to resign from public office.

However, as William Safire notes in Safire’s Political Dictionary, “these suicides, like the report of Mark Twain’s death, are usually exaggerations. Actions unpopular on their face can be take as evidence of courage.”


The name Southerners used to describe Northerners who moved to the South during the Reconstruction era, between 1865 and 1877.

The term comes from the Carpetbags — luggage literally made from the pieces of old carpet — that were used by travelers during this period. Anyone with a Carpetbag was easily identified as an outsider. However, it was very much a derogatory term that suggested both political opportunism and exploitation by the outsiders. In the South, Northern carpetbaggers usually allied themselves with the newly-freed slaves to win political office.

It’s modern usage refers to any outsider who moves into an area to seek political power at the expense of the locals.


A politician who will go to any lengths to win public office, regardless of party affiliation or platform.

One of the earliest references comes from the Columbus Dispatch in October 28, 1895 which defined the term as “a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform, or principles, and who… gets there by sheer force of monumental talknophical asumnancy.”

According to Vintage Vocabulary, President Harry Truman revived its use  in 1952. Talking about politicians who like to make a show of public prayer, he said, “I wish some of these snollygosters would read the New Testament and perform accordingly.”

Time notes Truman’s tone “left no doubt that a snollygoster was a low creature indeed, but few, if any, of his hearers knew what snollygoster meant.”

A related term is carpetbagger.

cuff links gang

According to Time, this refers to the group of friends who helped Franklin D. Roosevelt run for Vice President in 1920 “and to whom he gave sets of cuff links in remembrance of that unfortunate political campaign.”

The gift of cuff links to political operatives has since become a sign of being an early insider with a politician.

favorite son

A politician who is mainly favored in their home state or district but who has little electoral appeal in other areas.

The term can also refer to a candidate who holds a state’s votes at a national party convention for the purposes of later brokering a spot for himself on the national ticket or becoming a compromise candidate.

cattle call

A public gathering of potential presidential candidates early in the primary season.

The term is derived from its use by actors to refer to the audition process in which a large number of usually inexperienced performers try out for a limited number of roles for a performance.

Checkers speech

The Checkers speech was a nationally-televised address made by Sen. Richard Nixon (R-CA) on September 23, 1952 as he was fighting to retain his spot on the national Republican ticket as the vice presidential nominee.

Nixon had been accused of improprieties relating to a fund established by his supporters to reimburse him for his political expenses. In an attempt to stem the controversy over the fund, Nixon spoke to about about 60 million Americans about his humble upbringing which led to an outpouring of public support for him. He was retained on the ticket by Dwight D. Eisenhower who won the election in November 1952.

During the speech, Nixon said that regardless of what anyone said, he intended to keep one gift: a black-and-white dog which was named Checkers by the Nixon children, thus giving the address its popular name.

The speech was an early example of a politician using television to appeal directly to the electorate, but has since sometimes been mocked or denigrated. “Checkers speech” has come more generally to mean any emotional speech by a politician.

politics ain’t beanbag

A response to politicians who complain about the rough and tumble of the campaign trail, below-the-belt shots from their opponents or unfair treatment from the media.

It was first uttered by Mr. Dooley, an Irish-American character created by writer Finley Peter Dunne in an 1895 newspaper column. The full quote: “Sure, politics ain’t bean-bag. ‘Tis a man’s game, an’ women, childer, cripples an’ prohybitionists ‘d do well to keep out iv it.”

nattering nabobs of negativism

A phrase used by Vice President Spiro Agnew to refer to the members of the media with whom he had a very acrimonious relationship.

Said Agnew while speaking to the California Republican state convention on September 11, 1970: “In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H Club — the ‘hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.'”

While the phrase is generally attributed to Agnew, it was actually written by White House speechwriter William Safire.

Will Bunch: “The words that William Safire penned and that Spiro Agnew mouthed actually had enormous impact that has lasted until this day. They helped foster among conservatives and the folks that Nixon called ‘the silent majority’ a growing mistrust of the mainstream media, a mistrust that grew over two generations into a form of hatred. It also started a dangerous spiral of events — journalists started bending backwards to kowtow to their conservative critics, beginning in the time of Reagan, an ill-advised shift that did not win back a single reader or viewer on the right. Instead, it caused a lot of folks on the left and even the center to wonder why the national media had stopped doing its job, stopped questioning authority.”

military industrial complex

The comfortable relationship between the military, the federal government and the defense contractors that produce weapons and equipment for war.

The term was immortalized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961. In the speech, Eisenhower cites the military-industrial complex as a warning to the American people not to let this dictate America’s actions at home or abroad.

Said Eisenhower: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”


Political activism organized through blogs and other online social media.

The term was coined by Jerome Armstrong and is used in his 2006 book co-authored with Markos Moulitsas, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, in which they note “the netroots activist, much like the new generation of grassroots activist, is fiercely partisan, fiercely multi-issue, and focused on building a broader movement. It’s not an ideological movement — there is actually very little, issue-wise, that unites most modern party activists except, perhaps opposition to the Iraq war.”


The act of a political candidate presenting his or her views as being above and between the left and right sides of the political spectrum. It’s sometimes called the “third way.”

The term was first used by political consultant Dick Morris while working on the re-election campaign of President Clinton in 1996. Morris urged Clinton to adopt a set of policies that were different from the traditional policies of the Democratic Party in order to co-opt the opposition.

Morris described triangulation in an interview on Frontline in 2000: “Take the best from each party’s agenda, and come to a solution somewhere above the positions of each party. So from the left, take the idea that we need day care and food supplements for people on welfare. From the right, take the idea that they have to work for a living, and that there are time limits. But discard the nonsense of the left, which is that there shouldn’t be work requirements; and the nonsense of the right, which is you should punish single mothers. Get rid of the garbage of each position, that the people didn’t believe in; take the best from each position; and move up to a third way. And that became a triangle, which was triangulation.”

Morris also offered a definition in his book Power Plays: “The idea behind triangulation is to work hard to solve the problems that motivate the other party’s voters, so as to defang them politically… The essence of triangulation is to use your party’s solutions to solve the other side’s problems. Use your tools to fix their car.”


An unintentional comment that causes a politician embarrassment.

The term often refers to a politician inadvertently saying something publicly that they privately believe is true, but would ordinarily not say because it is politically damaging.

Michael Kinsley: “It used to be, there was truth and there was falsehood. Now there is spin and there are gaffes. Spin is often thought to be synonymous with falsehood or lying, but more accurately it is indifference to the truth. A politician engaged in spin is saying what he or she wishes were true, and sometimes, by coincidence, it is. Meanwhile, a gaffe, it has been said, is when a politician tells the truth — or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head. A gaffe is what happens when the spin breaks down.”

New York Observer: “In a world of YouTube, where everyone’s a video camera, publicized moments of misstatement and accusation presumably will only increase. But why do some public people in these cross hairs self-immolate while others endure and prevail? Maybe it’s because they ignore a few simple rules.”

inside baseball

The intricate knowledge of a process not normally known to the public and only of interest to insiders.

William Safire: “From its sports context comes its political or professional denotation: minutiae savored by the cognoscenti, delicious details, nuances discussed and dissected by aficionados. In politics, candidates who say they want to discuss larger issues look down their noses at the journalists and think-tankers who bedevil them with questions about campaign techniques, fund-raising plans and poll results. To them, inside baseball has a pejorative connotation that the phrase never gained in the baseball world.”

sacred cow

Any program, policy, or person that is regarded as being beyond attack or untouchable. The term references the status held by cows in Hindu culture, where the cow is regarded as a sacred animal.

In American politics, Social Security has been considered a sacred cow because it is so politically popular that most politicians would never support ending the program.

“Sacred Cow” was also the nickname of the first military aircraft used to transport a United States president.  According to the National Museum of the Air Force, President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew in the Sacred Cow to meet Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and General Secretary Joseph Stalin in the USSR for the Yalta Conference in February 1945.


The scientific study and statistical analysis of elections and voting.

The term was coined in 1952 by Oxford Professor R. B. McCallum and is derived from the Greek word psephos, which means pebble, and references the pebbles used by the Ancient Greeks to cast their votes.

soft power

The ability to obtain what one wants through co-option rather than the use of coercion.

The phrase was first coined by Joseph Nye of Harvard University in the late 1980s and is now widely used in international affairs.

From Nye’s book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics: “Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade. Whereas hard power — the ability to coerce — grows out of a country’s military or economic might, soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”

advance man

A staffer sent ahead to prepare for the arrival of a politician at a campaign rally, media appearance or other large event.

Time: “There is no such thing as a spontaneous campaign appearance. Every candidate has his advance men, the harried unsung experts who go from town to town to make as sure as humanly possible that the crowds will be out, the schedule smooth, the publicity favorable.”


An excessively friendly person, typically a politician, who greets another effusively but insincerely usually in an attempt to gain an advantage.

Roger Simon: “Joe Biden is a glad-hander in the best sense of the word: He looks glad to be grasping each person’s hand, looking the person in the eye, answering some question or exchanging some pleasantry — ‘You’re going to a wedding in Delaware? What hotel? You’re kidding! I live four miles from that hotel!’ — and then, spying the next person down the row, saying, ‘I’m coming for you! I’m coming!'”

cookie-cutter campaigns

A political campaign run by political consultants who use virtually identical strategies in different jurisdictions. The typical sign of such campaigns are websites or direct mail advertisements that use identical layouts and stock photographs.

The increased number of cookie-cutter campaigns in recent years is due, in large part, to the rise of political consulting on the local level.

But they’re also due to consultants having found campaign tactics that work again and again.

Walter Shapiro: “There is another intriguing reason why campaign tactics in both parties are about as creative and innovative as those employed by the French general staff during World War II. No major candidate is willing to risk his or her political future on untried campaign plans built around embracing new media and playing down TV spots. With a Senate seat or a governorship at stake, the political herd instinct is as powerful as it is debilitating. So every campaign resembles every other campaign with cookie-cutter ads since the creative potential of 30-second spots was exhausted decades ago.”

Farley file

A Farley file is a log kept by politicians on people they have met previously.

It’s named for James Aloysius Farley, who was Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign manager and later became chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Farley kept a file on anyone Roosevelt met allowing him to “remember” key personal details such as the name of their spouse and children or anything useful which might have come out of earlier meetings.

Farley files are now commonly kept by politicians.


Mugwumps were Republicans who supported Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland in 1884 because they viewed their own party’s candidate, James G. Blaine, as corrupt. Many historians believe the Mugwumps swung the election to Cleveland by helping him win in New York and its 36 electoral votes.

After the election, the term came to mean someone who is independent or who remains undecided or neutral in politics.

Michael Quinion: “It hit the big time in 1884, during the presidential election that set Grover Cleveland against the Republican James G Blaine. Some Republicans refused to support Blaine, changed sides, and the New York Sun labeled them little mugwumps. Almost overnight, the sense of the word changed to turncoat. Later, it came to mean a politician who either could not or would not make up his mind on some important issue, or who refused to take a stand when he was expected to do so. Hence the old joke that a mugwump is a person sitting on the fence, with his mug on one side and his wump on the other.”

The Atlantic notes their opponents also sneered at Mugwumps as “hermaphrodites.”

Shermanesque statement

A Shermanesque statement is a clear and direct statement by a potential political candidate indicating that he or she will not run for a particular office.

The term is derived from a remark made by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman when he was being considered as a possible Republican candidate for president in 1884. Sherman declined, saying, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”

In modern times, President Lyndon Johnson famously declared he would not run for a second term in 1968 by saying, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

Likewise, Gen. David Petraeus made a similar pledge in 2010 saying, “I thought I’ve said ‘no’ as many ways as I could. I will not ever run for political office, I can assure you of that.”


Republican In Name Only (RINO) is a disparaging term that refers to a Republican candidate whose political views are seen as insufficiently conforming to the party line.

whisper campaign

A whisper campaign is a method of persuasion using rumors, innuendos or other sneaky tactics to create false impressions about a political candidate while not being detected spreading them. For example, a campaign might create use automated phone calls or anonymous flyers attacking the other candidate.

The speed and anonymity of communication made possible by modern technologies like the Internet has increased their ability to succeed.

While the manner in which you conduct a whisper campaign will depend on your ultimate goal, eHow lists a few general tips about how to get a whisper campaign underway.

Mama Grizzlies

A metaphor used by 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin for conservative women.

In speeches during the 2010 midterm election campaign, Palin challenged these “mama grizzlies” to rise up and “take this country back” and invoked her 2008 acceptance speech where she compared herself to a pit bull.

Said Palin: “You don’t want to mess with moms who are rising up. If you thought pit bulls were tough, you don’t want to mess with mama grizzlies.”

As Salon noted, “These mama bears are the same hockey moms Palin targeted in her vice presidential bid, only now they’re angry.”

full Ginsburg

The “full Ginsburg” refers to an appearance by one person on all five major Sunday-morning interview shows on the same day: This Week on ABC, Face the Nation on CBS, Meet the Press on NBC, State of the Union on CNN and Fox News Sunday.

The term is named for William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer during the Clinton scandal, who was the first person to accomplish this feat, on February 1, 1998.


A person who loves, supports, and defends one’s country.

However, a patriot does not necessarily support their leader’s actions or a nation’s policies. For example, the colonists who rebelled against British control during the American Revolution also called themselves “patriots” when they declared the United States of America an independent nation on July 4, 1776.

Because of this history, the term also has a uniquely American meaning which is embedded in the reverence for the principles established in the Declaration of Independence.

killer amendment

The legislative strategy of using an amendment to severely change a bill’s intent for the purpose of killing a bill that would otherwise pass. The member proposing the amendment would not vote in favor of the legislation when it came to the final vote, even if the amendment were accepted.

boll weevil Democrat

Boll weevil Democrats were conservative southern Democrats in the mid 1900s, largely known for their opposition to civil rights. They used the term because the boll weevil, a southern pest, could not be eliminated by pesticides – politicians therefore thought of them as a symbol of tenacity.

The term fell out of use in the 1980s, and conservative Democrats are now known as Blue Dogs.

Fourth Estate

A term applied to the media, especially with regards to their role in the political process.

The phrase has its origins in the French Revolution, where the church, nobility and commoners comprised the first, second, and third estates. The media was first called the fourth estate in 1821 by an essayist who wanted to point out the press’ power. The term is now somewhat dated, but is used to stress journalists’ importance to politics.


The well of the U.S. House of Representatives is the area in front of the rostrum. Members wishing to speak generally do so from the well, and Congressmen who are censured are required to stand in the well to hear the resolution condemning them. Generally, presidents who address Congress do so from the rostrum, but Franklin Roosevelt’s last speech to Congress was given from the well, in a rare acknowledgment of his disability.

The origins of the term are unknown, although the Oxford English Dictionary gives one definition of ‘well’ as “The space on the floor of a law court (between the judge’s bench and the last row of seats occupied by counsel) where the solicitors sit.” It is possible that, as legislatures used to serve judicial functions, the term was transferred to legislative bodies.

body man

A body man assists an executive branch official or political candidate by shadowing him at virtually all times.

The term was first used in a 1988 Boston Globe article, which said that body men “fulfill a kind of mothering role,” securing their bosses accommodations and ensuring he always has his favorite breakfast. Past body men have become very close with their employers: George W. Bush’s body man, Blake Gottesman, dated Bush’s daughter Jenna, and Richard Nixon’s body man followed his boss into retirement.

William Safire: “The informal job title is not be confused with the man with the briefcase, the ever-present carrier of the codes needed by the president to respond to a hostile missile launch. It is more specific and intimate than gofer, a term applied to any aide ready to ”go fer” coffee or do other menial tasks.”


An unofficial title used to refer to high-ranking executive branch appointments. Czars are usually given responsibility for a specific policy area and do not have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. They usually have an official title, but are referred to as czars by the media: For example, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is simply known as the drug czar.

Bernard Baruch, appointed by Woodrow Wilson to head the War Industries Board in 1918, was the first to be called a czar. The usage of the term, only one year after the Russian Revolution, was originally derogatory, although it is less so today.

The term czar was used more frequently in reference to appointed executive branch officials under President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. In 1942, the Washington Post reported on the “executive orders creating new czars to control various aspects of our wartime economy.”

Committee of the Whole

The Committee of the Whole is a procedural device used to expedite debates in the U.S. House of Representatives. To use it, the House adjourns and enters into a committee, with all representatives being members – this procedure allows congressmen to debate legislation subject to the simpler committee rules, and is often used to dispense with funding bills quickly. Non-voting delegates can vote in the Committee of the Whole, although their votes cannot be the deciding ones.

The U.S. Senate used the Committee of the Whole as a parliamentary device until May 16, 1930, when the practice was abolished with respect to bills and joint resolutions. The Senate continued to utilize the Committee of the Whole for consideration of treaties until February 27, 1986.

fusion voting

Fusion voting allows a candidate’s name to appear on multiple parties’ ballot lines, and to combine his or her votes from those lines. It was widespread in the 19th Century, as Democrats benefited from fusion tickets with populist parties, but now remains legal in only eight states. In those states, minor parties will often agree to cross-endorse a major party’s candidate in exchange for influence on the candidate’s platform.

maiden speech

The first speech a legislator gives, a maiden speech is often a non-controversial tribute to the politician’s state or district, and often pays tribute to his or her predecessor. Especially in the Senate, which prides itself on being the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” senators are expected to wait to deliver their maiden speech until they are familiar with the rules of the body.

While most maiden speeches are relatively uncontroversial, that’s not always the case. One of the most famous was Richard Nixon’s first speech to the House of Representatives, where he praised the communist-hunting efforts of the House Un-American Activities Committee .


A phase in a campaign where organizers collect signatures to put a candidate’s name on the ballot. How many signatures are needed depends on the jurisdiction and the office sought; some states allow candidates to pay a fee instead of submitting signatures. In areas with popular initiatives, signatures are needed to put a measure on a ballot.


The U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate each have a sergeant-at-arms, whose job it is to maintain order in the legislative chamber. 

In the Senate, the sergeant-at-arms can also be instructed to request the presence of senators if not enough senators are present to meet a quorum.  If the motion to instruct the sergeant-at-arms does not bring in enough senators, the sergeant-at-arms can be instructed to write arrest warrants for all absent senators and is then required to hunt them down and bring them to the floor.


U.S. Senate rules include a special section for consideration of the annual Budget resolution. The Budget is not subject to filibuster, but all amendments must be germane and are voted on consecutively without real debate.

During a vote-a-rama, each amendment is considered and voted on for about 10 minutes until they are finished with all amendments. It’s an exhausting process that many senators have said makes it impossible to know what is actually being considered.

Keith Hennessey: “The vote-a-rama is an unusual cultural institution within the Senate. All 100 Senators are on the floor, in the cloakrooms, or right outside the Senate Chamber for hours and hours upon end. Another 100-ish staff are packed onto tiny staff benches in the rear of the Chamber, one for Republican staff and another for Democratic staff. Everyone is usually exhausted during the vote-a-rama, which comes near the end of an arduous and usually conflict-ridden legislative battle.”


Shivercrats were a conservative faction of the Texas Democratic Party in the 1950s named for Texas Gov. Allan Shivers (D).

The term was first used in 1952 after Shivers backed Republican Dwight Eisenhower for president over Democrat Adlai Stevenson.

Interestingly, Lyndon B. Johnson initially aligned himself with the Shivercrats as a U.S. Senator but increasingly sided with liberals on domestic policy after becoming president in 1963. Most of the Shivercrats ended up leaving the Democratic party as the liberal-moderate faction took control of the state party after 1970.


The Copperheads were Northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War and wanted a peace settlement with the Confederates.

Republicans started calling them Copperheads, likening them to the poisonous snake. Interestingly, they accepted the label but because the copperhead to them was the likeness of Liberty, which they cut from copper pennies and proudly wore as badges.

Perhaps the most famous Copperhead was Ohio’s Clement L. Vallandigham. Many counties in Ohio and Indiana continued to exist as a kind of solid south in exile for years along the Ohio River.


Recruiting candidates for public office with the main objective of having their names begin with the letter A.

GOP consultant Roger Stone: “In the late 1970’s a Republican consultant and I examined a series of races on Long Island when two candidates who were complete unknowns and who had no campaign resources to raise their profile. In 90% of the races the candidate who’s name began with A won. We called this phenomena ‘Aardvarking’ and urged GOP leaders to recruit candidates for lower office who’s names started with the first letter of the alphabet. Why does Adam Alberts beat Ricky Jones 90% of the time? Who knows.”

stump speech

A stump speech is a standard campaign speech used by someone running for public office.

The term derives from the early American custom in which candidates campaigned from town to town and stood upon a sawed off tree stump to deliver their speech. Because a candidate might hit many towns in a single day, he typically used the same speech in each place and customized the beginning to include specific mentions of local officials and supporters.

unanimous consent

A Senator may request unanimous consent to set aside a specified rule of procedure so as to expedite proceedings. If no Senator objects, the Senate permits the action, but if any one Senator objects, the request is rejected.

The principle behind the rule is that procedural safeguards designed to protect a minority can be waived when there is no minority to protect.

split ticket

A split ticket is when a voter chooses candidates from different political parties in the same election.

straight ticket

Voting a straight ticket is when a voter chooses all of the candidates of the same party.

To facilitate straight ticket voting, some jurisdictions may allow voters to pull a lever or check a single box to choose all the candidates of a particular party.

push poll

A push poll a seemingly unbiased survey that is actually conducted by supporters of a particular candidate that intends to disseminate negative or misleading information about an opponent. Its intent is primarily to distribute propaganda rather than to understand the views and opinions of the public.

Stuart Rothenberg notes push polls “are really advocacy calls aimed at thousands of recipients. They are like television or radio ads, except they are delivered over the telephone. They seek to convey positive or negative information to influence a voter’s final vote decision.”

Mark Blumenthal: “A true push poll is not a poll at all.  It is a telemarketing smear masquerading as a poll.”

open primary

A primary election that allows voters to select candidates on one party’s ballot without declaring their own party affiliation.

It’s not to be confused with a blanket primary, in which all candidates appear on the same ballot and the two highest voted candidates proceed to the runoff, regardless of party affiliation.


Mudslinging, often called negative campaigning, is the practice of making malicious attacks against a political opponent’s character and reputation.

The term originates from the Latin phrase “fortiter calumniari, aliquia adhaerebit,” which translated to “throw plenty of dirt and some of it will stick.”

exit polls

An exit poll is a poll of voters taken immediately as they leave the polling place in which they are asked which candidate they chose.

Exit polls are conducted by media companies to get an early indication of who actually won an election, as the actual result sometimes may take many hours to determine.

Electoral College

The Electoral College was established by the founding fathers as a compromise between election of the president by Congress and election by popular vote. Americans actually vote for the electors who then vote for the President.

The term “electoral college” actually does not appear in the U.S. Constitution and was derived from the concept of electors used by the Roman empire. However, in the early 1800’s the term “electoral college” came into general usage as the unofficial designation for the group of citizens selected to cast votes for President and Vice President. It was later written into Federal law in 1845.

Each state gets a number of electors equal to its number of members in the U.S. House of Representatives plus one for each of its two U.S. Senators.

dark horse

A dark horse candidate is a little-known politician who emerges to win a primary election and capture his party’s nomination.

The term is derived from an unknown horse winning a race and was first used by Benjamin Disraeli in the novel, The Young Duke.

convention bounce

A convention bounce refers to the surge of support a presidential candidates may enjoy after the televised national convention of their party. The size and impact of a convention bounce is sometimes seen as an early indicator of party unity.

blanket primary

In a blanket primary system, voters are not required to affiliate with a political party and may vote for any candidate on the ballot. The candidate from each political party who receives the most votes in the primary advances to the general election.

A blanket primary is sometimes confused with an open primary in which voters may pick candidates regardless of their own party registration, but may only choose among candidates from a single party of the voter’s choice.


To follow a group that has a large and growing number of followers.

A bandwagon is literally a wagon which carries the band in a parade. The phrase “jump on the bandwagon” first appeared in American politics in 1848 when Dan Rice, a famous and popular circus clown of the time, used his bandwagon and its music to gain attention for campaign appearances. As campaigns became more successful, more politicians strove for a seat on the bandwagon, hoping to be associated with the success.

However, by William Jennings Bryan’s 1900 presidential campaign, the term was used in a derogatory way, implying that people were associating themselves with the success without considering what they associated themselves with.

absentee ballot

An absentee ballot is a vote cast by someone who is unable to visit the official polling place on Election Day. This type of vote is normally submitted by mail.

Increasing the ease of access to absentee ballots are seen by many as one way to improve voter turnout, though some jurisdictions require that a valid reason, such as sickness or travel, be given before a voter can participate in an absentee ballot.

morning business

Routine business that is supposed to occur during the first two hours of a new legislative day in the U.S. Senate. This business includes receiving messages from the President and from the other legislative chamber, reports from executive branch officials, petitions from citizens, committee reports and the introduction of bills and submission of resolutions.

In practice, this sometime occurs at other convenient points in the day.


Legislators introduce bills by placing them in the bill hopper attached to the side of the clerk’s desk. The term derives from a funnel-shaped storage bin filled from the top and emptied from the bottom, which is often used to house grain or coal. Bills are retrieved from the hopper and referred to committees with the appropriate jurisdiction.


Personal, unmarked offices in the Capitol originally assigned to senior senators. They are conveniently located near the Senate floor.

The hideaway location of an individual Senator is a closely held secret, most with no names on the doors. They are hidden from view with some even tucked away behind large statues. Due to recent renovations, all 100 Senators have for the first time been assigned their own hideaway. There is no public information on the cost of renovating and furnishing these offices.

The secrecy surrounding hideaways has generated considerable media interest, with provocative article titles, such as: “Senate’s Biggest Secret: Lush Hideaways for Lawmakers“, and “Congressional Perks: How the Trappings of Office Trap Taxpayers“.


Meaning relevant or appropriate; refers to the nature of a pending bill’s amendments. In the House, amendments must be germane unless permitted as an exception to the rule.  According to Senate rules, amendments need not be germane, except to “general appropriation bills, budget measures, and matters under cloture (and a few other bills, pursuant to statutes)”. (See the Senate Legislative Process) In addition, Senate unanimous consent agreements may require that amendments be germane.

According to Capitol Net: The 1974 budget act also requires that amendments to concurrent budget resolutions be germane. In the House, floor debate must be germane, and the first three hours of debate each day in the Senate must be germane to pending business.

The differing rule requirements can cause conflicts between House and Senate: “conference agreements may include provisions that violate a basic principle of House procedure.” (See Germaneness Rules and Bicameral Relations in the US Congress)

franking privileges

The right of members to post mail to constituents without having to pay postage. A copy of the member’s signature replaces the stamp on the envelope. Authentic signatures of famous individuals are valuable collectors’ items.

Franking privileges in Congress date from the First Continental Congress of 1775. Opportunity for abuse exists and has prompted calls for reform. According to “CRS Report: Franking Privilege: Historical Development and Options for Change”:

“… [S]trong criticism of the franking privilege developed regarding the use of the frank as an influence in congressional elections and the perceived advantage it gives incumbent Members running for reelection. Contemporary opponents of the franking privilege continue to express concerns about both its cost and its effect on congressional elections.”

Limits on and oversight of franking exist today. The House has appointed a Franking Commission t0:

“(1)  issue regulations governing the proper use of the franking privilege; (2) provide guidance in connection with mailings; (3) act as a quasi-judicial body for the disposition of formal complaints against Members of Congress who have allegedly violated franking laws or regulations.”

ex officio

From Latin, meaning, “by virtue of one’s office.”

Ex officio status in all sub-committees is usually granted to the committee chairman and minority leader. They are typically not permitted the same voting rights. For example, the Vice President serves ex officio as president of the Senate, but is only permitted to vote in a tie-breaker situation.


Funds that are allocated to a specific program, project or for a designated purpose. Revenues are earmarked by law. Expenditures are earmarked by appropriations bills or reports.

According to the Office of Management & Budget definition, earmarks include:

  1. Add-ons. If the Administration asks for $100 million for formula grants, for example, and Congress provides $110 million and places restrictions … on the additional $10 million, the additional $10 million is counted as an earmark. However, if the additional funding is to speed up the completion of a project with no restrictions this is NOT an earmark.
  2. Carve-outs. If the Administration asks for $100 million and Congress provides $100 million but places restrictions on some portion of the funding, the restricted portion is counted as an earmark.
  3. Funding provisions that do not name a recipient, but are so specific that only one recipient can qualify for funding is counted as an earmark.

Slate’s “What’s an Earmark” article provides a distinction between earmarks and general budget expenditures:

“For example, if Congress passed a budget that gave a certain amount of money to the National Park Service as a whole, no one would consider it an earmark. But if Congress added a line to the budget specifying that some of that money must go toward the preservation of a single building—definitely an earmark.”

Earmarks can be used for political, pork-barrel spending and considerable debate in Congress has centered on earmark reform. President Obama’s speech on Earmark Reform, March 11, 2009, called for legislation that would create greater transparency and public awareness of proposed earmarks. Acknowledging that earmarks can be useful, the president stated they “must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose.”

one-minute speeches

Also called, “one minutes”, a speech typically given at the beginning of the day by a House member on a chosen topic. One minutes can also be scheduled at the end of legislative business. It is at the discretion of the Speaker how much time will be allotted for the speeches. Although they are not a rule of the House, one minutes have emerged as a “unanimous consent practice” of the chamber.

One-minute speeches can be used for promoting partisan positions and launching attacks. According to Kathryn Pearson of, one minute attack speeches are becoming routine (See,”One-minute Attack Speeches Becoming Routine in U.S. House“): “…party leaders have taken an active role in coordinating one-minutes so that they consist of attacks on the other party or a defense of one’s own party… Indeed, the “Republican Theme Team” and the “Democratic Message Group” recruit members to deliver one-minutes to reinforce the party’s daily message”.

As noted in CRS Report, One Minute Speeches: Current Practices, “the usual position of one minutes at the start of day means they can be covered by broadcast news organizations in time for evening news programs …. Some Representatives have made one-minute speeches a regular part of their media and communication strategy.”

The tendency to use one minutes for attack and promotion has prompted calls for reform or complete elimination of the privilege.


The committee meeting held to review the text of a bill before reporting it to the floor. Committee members do not make changes to the text but can vote on proposed amendments.  In conclusion, members vote on a motion to send the bill with accompanying amendments, to the House.

There is room for political maneuvering during the mark-up meeting, as quoted by one lobbyist familiar with the process: “Committee’s often abruptly cancel congressional mark ups, such as in this case and instead schedule hearings in an attempt to regain support for a bill.”

The desk

Another name for the rostrum where the presiding officer and various clerks of the chamber sit. According to recent practices, most bills, resolutions, and committee reports are delivered to the clerks at the presiding officer’s desk for processing throughout the day. Up until the 1960’s, measures delivered to the desk could be held, unprocessed, for days to allow the addition of new signatures. This unpopular procedure has now been discontinued.

Dear Colleague letter

Official letter distributed in bulk by a member to all congressional members. Dear Colleague letters typically include issues related to co-sponsoring or opposing a bill, new procedures or upcoming congressional events. Although Dear Colleague letters have been used by members for over a century, technological advances in recent years have facilitated their distribution. In 2008, the House introduced a web based e-“Dear Colleague” system, streamlining topic headings and distribution lists.


Short for “Congressional Delegation”, and defined as a trip abroad by a member or members of Congress.


Assistance provided by members of Congress to constituents who encounter a grievance with a federal agency or the federal government. Examples include cases related to political asylum, Social Security benefits, the military, Veterans’ Administration concerns and IRS problems. Casework not performed by members of Congress typically include legal work, divorce cases and child custody issues. Most members of Congress, such as Senator Harry Reid, include on their websites a description of casework and how constituents can obtain assistance through the member’s office.


Informal agreement between legislators to vote for each others’ priorities. Logrolling occurs frequently when lawmakers, unencumbered by pressure from party leaders, push through a bill that benefits their constituencies, but is financed by all taxpayers. Popular logrolling projects include, dams, bridges, highways, housing projects and hospitals.

The term originates from the early days of neighbors helping each other clear land to build homes. From “Politicians have long recognized that logrolling is mutually beneficial in legislative halls too. The word was applied to the political practice of reciprocal backscratching as early as 1809.”

According to Julian E. Zelizer, author of “Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security From World War II to the War on Terrorism”, former president Johnson was an expert in the politics of  logrolling: “… direct persuasion could go only so far. Johnson was also a big believer in using logrolls to obtain a vote.”

leader time

Ten minute time allotted to majority and minority leaders at the start of the daily session. Leaders use the time to discuss any important issues or the day’s legislative agenda. All or part of the leader time may be reserved for use later in the day.

lay on the table

A motion for the permanent disposal of a bill, resolution, amendment, appeal, or motion.

One of the most widely used parliamentary procedures, tabling can be effected through unanimous consent — where the Chair states: “without objection, the matter is laid upon the table” — or put to a vote. However, tabling a resolution can be controversial because it permanently ends debate on an issue.

“Lay on the table” should not be confused with the same term used in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries where “tabling” refers to beginning consideration of a resolution or issue.

king of the hill

A special rule in the House for sequencing different amendments. If more than one version receives a majority of votes, the last one to win a majority prevails.

An excerpt from The American Congress explains:

“Special rules are highly flexible tools for tailoring floor action to individual bills. Amendments may be limited or prohibited. The order of voting on amendments may be structured. For example, the House frequently adopts a special rule called a king-of-the-hill rule. First used in 1982, a king-of-the-hill rule provides for a sequence of votes on alternative amendments, usually full substitutes for the bill. The last amendment to receive a majority wins, even if it receives fewer votes than some other amendment. This rule allows members to vote for more than one version of the legislation, which gives them freedom both to support a version that is easy to defend at home and to vote for the version preferred by their party’s leaders. Even more important, the procedure advantages the version voted on last, which is usually the proposal favored by the majority party leadership.”

Also see:  Partisanship or Protection: Examining the King of the Hill Rule.


A pleasure trip taken by a politicians with expenses paid for with public funds.

President Obama was accused of wasteful spending on a junket to New York in May, 2009 for dinner and a show with his wife.


The aisle refers to the space which divides the majority side from the minority on the House and Senate floor. When debating, members frequently refer to their party affiliation as “my side of the aisle.”

When facing the front of the chamber, Democrats sit on the left side of the aisle; Republicans on the right.

K Street

K Street refers to the area in downtown Washington, D.C. where many lobbyists, lawyers and advocacy groups have their offices. It’s become a term to refer to the lobbying industry as a whole.

cats and dogs

Cats and dogs are are leftover “stray” bills on minor subjects saved for days when the House or Senate have light floor schedules.

recall election

A recall election is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote, typically initiated when enough voters sign a petition.

Only two governors have ever been successfully recalled. In 1921, Gov. Lynn Frazier of North Dakota was recalled during a dispute about state-owned industries, and in 2003, Gov. Gray Davis of California was recalled over the state budget.

The recall process has a history dating back to the ancient Athenian democracy.


An impeachment is a formal charge of criminality raised against an elected official in the first step to remove them from office. In the federal government, only the House of Representatives may bring an impeachment while only the Senate may try and convict the accused. A conviction requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate and results in removal of the accused from office.

Impeachment can also occur at the state level, according to their respective state constitutions.

The impeachment process should not be confused with a recall election which is usually initiated by voters.

yeas and nays

A recorded roll call vote of Members of the House or Senators.

The U.S. Constitution directs that “the yeas and nays of the members of either house, on any question, shall, at the desire of one-fifth of those present, be entered on the journal.”

The action does not necessarily bring debate to an end. It does mean that whenever debate ends, a roll call vote will occur.

pocket veto

A legislative tactic that allows the President to indirectly veto a bill.

The U.S. Constitution requires the President to sign a bill within the 10 days if Congress is in session. If Congress is in session and the president fails to sign the bill, it becomes law without his signature. However, if Congress adjourns before the ten days are up and the President does not sign the bill, it will not become law. Ignoring it, or putting it in your pocket, has been called a pocket veto.


An untrue or unfair political attack or smear campaign.

The term comes from the 2004 presidential campaign when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth produced a series of television ads and a bestselling book that challenged Kerry’s military record and criticized his subsequent antiwar activities. Kerry himself had served for four months as a swift boat commander in Vietnam.

The term “swiftboating” soon became used to describe political tactics of the group.

October surprise

A news event late in a political campaign that has the potential to influence the outcome of an election.

Because Election Day is typically held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, surprise events that take place in October can have the potential change the minds of prospective voters.

The term came first into use just after the 1972 presidential election, when the United States was in negotiations to end the domestically-divisive Vietnam War. Twelve days before Election Day, on October 26, 1972, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger appeared at a White House press conference and announced, “We believe that peace is at hand.” Though Nixon was widely considered the favorite for re-election over challenger George McGovern, the news proved beneficial to Nixon as he went on to win every state except Massachusetts in the election.

However, according to the New York Observer, the “term ‘October surprise’ is most famously associated with the 1980 campaign, when Republicans spent the fall worrying that Jimmy Carter would engineer a last-minute deal to free the American hostages who had been held in Iran since the previous year. Carter and Ronald Reagan were locked in a close race, but an awful economy and flagging national confidence made the president supremely vulnerable.”

“Reagan’s campaign was particularly worried because there had already been two instances in the ’80 campaign cycle when news out of Iran had caused Carter’s anemic popularity to (briefly) soar: When the hostages were seized in late 1979 and again when he authorized a bold but unsuccessful rescue mission a few months later. In those instances, the American public instinctively rallied around its president. This was no small factor in Carter’s ability to beat back Senator Ted Kennedy’s Democratic primary challenge. The release of the hostages, Reagan’s forces knew, would almost certainly guarantee Carter’s reelection.”

recess appointment

A presidential appointment typically requiring Senate approval that is made during a Senate recess. To be confirmed, the appointment must be approved by the Senate by the end of the next session of Congress or the position becomes vacant again. Recess appointments are authorized by  Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

Recess appointments permitted the president to make appointments when the Senate was adjourned for lengthy periods. More recently, however, the president has used the privilege to push through unpopular candidates. For example, during his second term, President Bush appointed several controversial candidates while the Senate was in recess.  In 2007, Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, retaliated by holding pro forma sessions during Senate recesses. As a result, the Bush administration was unable to make further recess appointments.


A proposed law introduced in either the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate.

A bill originating in the House is designated by the letters “H.R.” followed by a number and bills introduced in the Senate as “S.” followed by a number. The sequential numbering of bills for each session of Congress began in the House in 1817 and in the Senate in 1847.

In 1975, Schoolhouse Rock aired an educational segment, “I’m Just a Bill,” introducing children to the concept of how a bill becomes a law.


A no-nonsense attitude or approach to getting what you want in politics.

From the introduction to Hardball by Chris Matthews: “Let me define terms: hardball is clean, aggressive Machiavellian politics. It is the discipline of gaining and holding power, useful to any profession or undertaking, but practiced most openly and unashamedly in the world of public affairs.”

Example from All the President’s Men: “This is the hardest hardball that’s ever been played in this town. We all have to be very careful, in the office and out.”

witch hunt

A politically-motivated, often vindictive investigation that feeds on public fears.

The term refers to the witch hunts in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, where many innocent women accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake or drowned.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s (R-WI) search for Communists in the federal government during the 1950s is often referred to as a witch hunt.


The practice of making political speeches or appearances in many different towns during a short period of time.

The term originates from the time when politicians mainly traveled by train and gave speeches from the back of the train during “whistle-stops” in small towns. The term now covers any means of travel punctuated by multiple short stops.


Short for a “photo opportunity,” an event specifically staged for television news cameras or photographers to increase a politician’s exposure.

The term was reportedly coined during the Nixon administration by Bruce Whelihan, an aide to Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler. Ziegler would say, “Get ’em in for a picture,” and Whelihan would dutifully announce to the White House press room, “There will be a photo opportunity in the Oval Office.”


A politician whose rhetoric appeals to raw emotions such as fear and hatred in order to gain power.

Former Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) is often cited as a classic demagogue for his practice in the 1950s of smearing prominent Americans with baseless accusations being Communists.

fence mending

After making an unpopular vote or taking an unpopular action, lawmakers will often need to return to their districts in an attempt to “mend fences” with constituents.

The term originated in 1879, when Sen. John Sherman (R-OH) made a speech in which he said, “I have come home to look after my fences.” Though Sherman may have literally meant he was going to repair fences on his farm, the line was widely interpreted to mean that he had come with a political motive and rebuild support in the coming elections.

pro forma session

A brief meeting (sometimes only several seconds) in which no business is conducted. It is held usually to satisfy the constitutional obligation that neither chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other.

Pro forma sessions can also be used to prevent the President from making recess appointments, pocket-vetoing  bills, or calling the Congress into special session. During a 2007 recess, for example, Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, planned to keep the Senate in pro forma session in order to prevent further controversial appointments made by the Bush Administration. Said Reid: “I am keeping the Senate in pro forma [session] to prevent recess appointments until we get this process on track.”

coattail effect

The term refers to the power of a popular candidate to gather support for other candidates running on the same party ticket. Winning candidates are said to have coattails when they drag candidates for lower office along with them to victory.

The expression dates from the mid-19th century when coats with tails were the fashion for men.

President Ronald Reagan was said to have coattails when his victory int he 1980 election was accompanied by the change of twelve seats in the U.S. Senate from Democratic to Republican hands, producing a Republican majority in the Senate for the first time since 1954.

checks and balances

The U.S. Constitution divides power among the three branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial — to prevent any one from having too much power. Each branch is said to have the ability to check the power of the others, thereby maintaining a balance in the government.

Though it’s sometimes said the United States has three “equal” branches of government, in reality the power of each has fluctuated throughout history.

bleeding heart

A term that describes people whose hearts “bleed” with sympathy for the poor and downtrodden.

It’s frequently used to criticize liberals who favor government spending for social programs. However, former Republican Vice Presidential nominee Jack Kemp was remembered in a Los Angeles Times obituary as a “bleeding heart conservative” for policies he supported to empower poor people.

Blue Dog Democrats

The Blue Dog Democrats were formed in 1995 by approximately thirty conservative-leaning House Democrats who sought to challenge the liberal tilt of the broader Democratic party. After Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 by a narrow margin, the Blue Dogs sought to become the swing vote.

Former Rep. Pete Geren (D-TX) is credited with the term by explaining these conservative Democrats had been “choked blue” by liberals in his party.

The group still exists today as the Blue Dog Coalition.

Yellow Dog Democrats

After Republican President Abraham Lincoln defeated the Confederacy, many Southern Democrats said they would rather “vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for any Republican.”

Today, the term refers to loyal Democratic voters who vote the straight party line.


Redistricting by the party in power to insure maximum votes for their candidates or make it more difficult for an opposition party to defend their seats.

The Library of Congress notes the term originated in 1811, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that created a new district resembling a salamander, provoking the Boston Gazette editor to say, “Salamander? Call it a Gerrymander!”

smoke-filled room

Typically a place where secret political deal-making occurs. In earlier times, many political operatives smoked cigars which filled the rooms with smoke.

Encyclopedia of Chicago: “The original smoke-filled room was in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, where, according to an enduring legend, a small group of powerful United States senators gathered to arrange the nomination of Warren G. Harding as Republican candidate for president in 1920… when the Associated Press reported that Harding had been chosen ‘in a smoke-filled room,’ the phrase entered the American political lexicon. Ever since, ‘smoke-filled room’ has meant a place, behind the scenes, where cigar-smoking party bosses intrigue to choose candidates.”

trial balloon

An idea suggested by a politician in order to observe the reaction. If public reaction is favorable, the politician pursues the idea and takes full credit.

The term originates with the testing of the first hot air balloons in the late 18th century. Unmanned balloons were sent up into the atmosphere to determine if they were safe for human travel.

rubber chicken circuit

The endless series of political dinners and lunches that politicians running for office must attend to raise money.

A frequent menu option at these gatherings is chicken, which must be cooked in advance and then reheated, making it rubbery to chew.

pork barrel projects

Wasteful government expeditures that lawmakers secure for their local districts in an attempt to gain favor with voters.

The term first came into use as a political term just after the Civil War. It’s derived from the practice of plantations distributing rations of salt pork to slaves from large wooden barrels as a reward or for special occasions


A journalist who investigates the scandalous activities of public officials and businesses.

The term “muckraker” was first used in a speech on April 14, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt: “In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; Who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.”

The most famous muckrakers in American history are probably Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for their work in exposing the corruption in the Nixon administration.

inside the Beltway

The area inside the Capital Beltway that encircles Washington, D.C.

An issue that is described as “inside the Beltway” is said to be only of concern to the people who work in the federal government and is of little interest to the nation at large.

fishing expedition

An open-ended investigation with no defined purpose, usually launched by one party seeking damaging information about another. These inquiries are compared to fishing because they pull up whatever they happen to catch.


An artificially-manufactured political movement designed to give the appearance of grass roots activism.

Campaigns & Elections magazine defined astroturf as a “grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them.”

Unlike natural grassroots campaigns which are people-rich and money-poor, an astroturf campaign tends to be the opposiite, well-funded but with little actual support from voters.

bully pulpit

A bully pulpit is a public office or position of authority that provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter.

The term was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, who referred to the White House as a “bully pulpit.” Roosevelt often used the word “bully” as an adjective meaning that meant terrific or wonderful.


An informal meeting of local party members to discuss candidates and choose delegates to their party’s convention.

The term can also refer to informal groups of Members of the House of Representatives or the Senate used to discuss common issues of concern and conduct policy planning for its members. There are also regional, ideological, and ethnic-based caucuses in Congress.

The term comes from the Algonquian language and means “to meet together.”

William Harris: “The term Caucus is first attested in the diary of John Adams in l763 as a meeting of a small group interested in political matters, but William Gordon’s History of the Independence of the United States of America, 1788 speaks of the establishment of caucus political clubs as going back fifty years earlier than his time of writing in 1774, so a first-occurrence date for the caucus can be estimated in retrospect as early as 1724.”

Congressional Record

The official record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress. It is published daily when Congress is in session. At the back of each daily issue is the “Daily Digest,” which summarizes the day’s floor and committee activities.

The Congressional Record is available online from 1994.

dog-whistle politics

A type of political speech using code words that appear to mean one thing to the general population but have a different meaning for a targeted part of the audience.

The Economist: “Over the past few weeks, a new expression has entered the Westminster lexicon: dog-whistle politics. It means putting out a message that, like a high-pitched dog-whistle, is only fully audible to those at whom it is directly aimed.”

lame duck session

When the House or Senate reconvenes in an even-numbered year following the November general elections to consider various items of business. Some lawmakers who return for this session will not be in the next Congress. Hence, they are informally called “lame duck” Members participating in a “lame duck” session.

advice and consent

Under Article II of the United States Constitution, presidential nominations for executive and judicial posts take effect only when confirmed by the U.S. Senate. In addition, international treaties become effective only when the U.S. Senate approves them by a two-thirds vote.

live pair

An informal voluntary agreement between Members which is not specifically recognized by House or Senate rules. Live pairs are agreements which Members employ to nullify the effect of absences on the outcome of recorded votes. If a Member expects to be absent for a vote, he or he may “pair off” with another Member who will be present and who would vote on the other side of the question, but who agrees not to vote. The Member in attendance states that he has a live pair, announces how he and the paired Member would have voted, and then votes “present.” In this way, the other Member can be absent without affecting the outcome of the vote. Because pairs are informal and unofficial arrangements, they are not counted in vote totals; however paired Members’ positions do appear in the Congressional Record.

sine die

Without any future date being designated for resumption from the Latin term meaning “without a day.” An adjournment sine die signifies the end of an annual or special legislative session.

quorum call

A procedure used in both houses of Congress to bring to the floor the number of Members of the House or Senate who must be present for it to conduct its business.

In the Senate, a Senator who has the floor can force a quorum call at almost any time by suggesting the absence of quorum. The presiding officer usually cannot count to determine whether or not a quorum is present. So when a Senator “suggests the absence of a quorum,” the presiding officer directs the Clerk to call the roll of Senators aloud by name. If a majority of Senators respond, a quorum is present and the Senate can return to its business.

However, a quorum call in the Senate usually has a different purpose: most often it is a strategic move that is used to delay proceedings for a variety of reasons — for example, to conduct informal negotiations on or off the Senate floor, or to await a Senator who is expected to make a speech or propose an amendment. If the purpose of a quorum call actually is to bring a majority of Senators to the floor, it is known as a “live” quorum call.

A quorum call in the House seeks to bring a majority of Members to the floor to record their presence after the absence of a quorum has been established. In the House, a Member makes a point of order that a quorum is not present, usually only when a vote is taking place. The Speaker (or the Chairman of the Committee of the Whole) then counts to determine if a quorum is present. If a majority of Members fail to respond to a quorum call, the House must adjourn or take steps to secure the attendance of enough Members to constitute a quorum.

Source: Congressional Glossary


Democratic and Republican cloakrooms adjacent to the Senate chamber serve as gathering places for party members to discuss chamber business privately.

C-SPAN: “What goes on in there? Food, phones, frivolity, and fights. They are noisy, smelly, and cramped spaces. The House cloakrooms both have snack bars (basic diner food, e.g. hot dogs, sandwiches, and soups, and yes, they have to pay), but when they’re still voting late into the night, it’s better than nothing. Senators don’t have snack bars, but Senate catering sends left-over food platters from receptions to the cloakrooms, so there is usually something to nosh on.”

“All the cloakrooms have old-fashioned phone booths and the cloakroom staff tell Members which numbered booth they can use to take or make a call. There are stacks of flyers from the Whip offices about the floor schedule; from outside groups stating their position about that day’s votes, and copies of leadership Dear Colleague letters to their troops. The furnishings are modest, even a little shabby: large leather lounge chairs, sofas, and many ash-trays because that’s where all the serious smokers hang-out. Talk about a smoke-filled room, the cloakrooms are it! There are wall-mounted television sets and regular tiffs about the remote control. Sometimes sports events are favored over the floor proceedings occurring just on the other side of the door.”


The only procedure by which the U.S. Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter, and thereby overcome a filibuster.

Under the cloture rule (Rule XXII), the Senate may limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by vote of three-fifths of the full Senate, normally 60 votes.


An informal term for any attempt to block or delay U.S. Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.

From the Senate Historical Office: “Using the filibuster to delay or block legislative action has a long history. The term filibuster — from a Dutch word meaning ‘pirate’ — became popular in the 1850s, when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill.

In the early years of Congress, representatives as well as senators could filibuster. As the House of Representatives grew in numbers, however, revisions to the House rules limited debate. In the smaller Senate, unlimited debate continued on the grounds that any senator should have the right to speak as long as necessary on any issue.”

Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) holds the record for the longest filibuster in his attempt to block the 1957 Civil Rights bill. Though he held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes, the bill passed just two hours after he stopped talking.