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.

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.

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.”


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.

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.”

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.

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.'”

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.”


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.”

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.

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.

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.


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.”


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.”

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.”


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.”


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.”


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.”

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

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.

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.”