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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.”

grifter

A grifter is a con artist, someone who obtains money by swindling or tricking others. In politics, the word refers to people who use the political process as a way to enrich themselves.

Merriam Webster notes that the word first appeared in print in 1915, in George Bronson-Howard’s novel, God’s Man. At that time, a grifter referred to any kind of criminal who used his wits, rather than brute force, to carry out crimes. Pickpockets, con artists, and card-sharps could all be classed as grifters.

In recent years, pundits have begun talking about “political grifters,” which is quite similar to what was once called “honest graft” in the Tammany Hall era.

In 2014 former Rep. Steve LaTourette, of Ohio, wrote a piece in Politico describing what he called the rise of the political grifter. LaTourette was describing people who get into politics, and stay in politics, because they want to line their own pockets. He singled out the Republican party for censure, warning that the party was being divided into two wings – the governing wing, and the grifting ring.

LaTourette claimed that right-wing groups like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots were “run by men and women who have made millions by playing on the fears and anger about the dysfunction in Washington.” In LaTourette’s view, modern-day grifters don’t care about ideals, or even about political power. They have no interest in governing or passing laws. They’re only in it for the money that they can collect in the form of political donations.

A 2014 investigation by Politico looked at 33 political action committees, or PACs, that courted donations from Tea Party voters. Politico discovered that the groups “raised $43 million — 74 percent of which came from small donors.” But almost none of the money raised can be accounted for, Politico found: “The PACs spent only $3 million on ads and contributions to boost the long-shot candidates often touted in the appeals, compared to $39.5 million on operating expenses, including $6 million to firms owned or managed by the operatives who run the PACs.”

In late 2018, the New York Times noted that both President Trump and his administration were “constantly” being accused of grifting. Earlier that year, Forbes said that Wilbur Ross, the US secretary of commerce, “could rank among the biggest grifters in American history.” One-time EPA head Scott Pruitt was repeatedly accused of being a grifter because of his close ties to the oil and gas industries. Michael Cohen, the president’s one-time personal lawyer, was widely seen as a grifter himself; later, Cohen testified against Trump and described his former boss as a “conman” and a “cheat.”

Of course, Democrats have also been accused of grifting. Bill and Hillary Clinton have both been accused of grifting, in part because of allegations that they did favors for wealthy donors to the Clinton Foundation. The New York Post ran an op-ed calling Hillary Clinton a “world class grifter who sold access to the Lincoln Bedroom and to her State Department office. The Wall Street Journal has also repeatedly accused both Bill and Hillary Clinton of “grifting.”

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

“Chicago-style politics” is a phrase used to characterize a supposedly offensive tough, “take-no-prisoners” or “hardball” 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

An “ego wall” is 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.”

borking

Borking

“Borking” is attacking 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

A time when drastic actions are required, because all other methods have failed. The phrase is used in sports as well as in politics.

Nut-cutting time is similar to “crunch time” – it’s a moment when the stakes are high and it’s appropriate to pull out all the stops. It’s also a time when it makes sense to experiment with new approaches.

William Safire is widely credited with being the first writer to use the phrase in print. Safire’s political dictionary defines nut-cutting time as “a slang allusion to political castration: the denial of favors and the removal of power; or, painful attention to details requiring attention.”

Richard Nixon famously used the phrase in 1968 during his presidential campaign. On the eve of the election, he told his campaign staff that it was time to “get down to the nut-cutting.” William Safire wrote that Nixon had meant to say “let’s get down to brass tacks” and that his use of the phrase “nut cutting” was a slip of the tongue. That’s been interpreted to mean that Nixon was expressing a deep-seated anxiety about castration, especially since Nixon went on to talk about lamb fries, a regional delicacy which he’d been given during a campaign stop in Missouri.

There’s some disagreement over where, exactly, the phrase “nut cutting time” originated. Some people believe that the phrase can be traced back to cattle ranches. The explanation is that there were certain days when the ranchers had to decide which of the cattle would be castrated, and which would be allowed to grow up to be bulls. The castration would be performed during nut cutting time. The expression, in this context, implies a painful but still necessary duty.

An alternate explanation says that the phrase comes from an industrial context. According to that theory, someone who has tried everything possible to remove a rusted or a stripped nut might be forced to physically cut the nut off the bolt as a final, last-ditch solution. The phrase, in this context, suggests an imperfect solution to a problem which is only appropriate when everything else has been attempted.

“Nut cutting time” is also used in sports, to mean “crunch time,” or the time when the best players have to pull out all the stops and show what they’re made of. In an interview with the Washington Post, former NFL hall of famer and coach Russ Grimm explained what he values and needs during nut cutting time:

“I mean it changes every year. The league changes,” Grimm said. “But the bottom line is, bigger is always better. And I’m gonna live and die with that. The toughness factor, when it comes to nut-cutting time, you want tough guys playing for you. You can take some of these Cadillacs or whatever, he runs a 4.3, but he runs a 4.3 every fifth time he runs a route, you know what I’m saying?

backbencher

backbencher

A “backbencher” is a junior member in the British House of Commons who occupies the back benches of Parliament, sitting behind party leaders and top government officials.

This term is most commonly used to describe legislators in parliamentary systems from England to New Zealand. There is some dispute about the first use of backbencher, though it generally attributed to English parliamentarians in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Merriam-Webster places the term’s first use in 1799, while the Oxford English Dictionary places the evolution of backbench into backbencher in 1910. The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP) places its origins in Canadian politics in 1897.

Backbencher is used not only to confer spatial locations in parliamentary locations but places in party hierarchies. The backbenches of Parliament are held by rank-and-file members who are low in the political pecking order. First-term legislators, independents, and party rebels are often found in the ranks of backbenchers. These figures are relegated to the back rows while party leaders and ministers occupy the front benches.

The DCHP places the first uses of backbenchers in American politics to the 1920s. Google’s Ngram Viewer confirms this chronology with a steady ascent in usage from 1936 to 1970. This trend may have occurred due to the closeness of relations between England and the United States.

U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) was a frequent user of the term during his tenure in Congress. His backbench days in the House including an effort to investigate the finances of Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D). In 1988, he told The New York Times, “If Jim Wright were a backbench member, I probably wouldn’t have done anything. But he’s the Speaker, and everything he could have done all his life as a backbencher becomes self-destructive when he becomes third in line to be President of the United States.”

Backbencher doesn’t work as well in American politics due to differences in legislative seating rules. The House of Representatives held a desk lottery each session from 1845 to 1913. This lottery was necessary because floor desks acted as legislator offices before the construction of dedicated office space. The House lottery system shifted from desks to offices and the floor desks were replaced by benches open to any member. The Senate’s standing rules require the assignment of seats after allocation following the most recent election.

Examples

The Australian Financial Review (February 25, 2020): “The bitter debate over climate change has led backbenchers from the right and left of the Coalition to express interest in exploring nuclear power.”

The Guardian (January 9, 2019): “At the heart of it all is a group of Labour backbenchers – and a growing number of Conservatives – who have been campaigning for a second referendum for over a year, and who are described by one MP involved as ‘an executive in exile’.”

The Globe and Mail (February 11, 2013): “Since 1947, only 26 percent of backbenchers who sat on the government side for seven years without ever being given a greater role were subsequently promoted.”

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.

bed-wetting

“Bed-wetting” refers to 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.”

strategery

Strategery is a fictional word coined by comedy writer Jim Downey in a now famous Saturday Night Live sketch written to lampoon former president George W. Bush during the election cycle of 2000, when he was still a candidate. The sketch, which first aired on SNL on October 7, 2000, simulated a debate between candidate Bush and his rival, Al Gore, and mocked Bush as an intellectual lightweight, playing off of his propensity for misspeaking and using neologisms.

In the skit, Will Ferrell, impersonating the former president, says “strategery” when the moderator asks the candidates to “sum up, in a single word, the best argument for their candidacy.” The sketch is also noted for fellow cast member Darrell Hammond’s impression of Gore, who is depicted as stiff and pedantic, presenting the word “lockbox” as his sole policy position.

Always one to embrace satire and be self-effacing, the Bush White House later appropriated the term and eventually consultants within the 43rd president’s orbit became affectionately referred to as “The Department of Strategery,” as reported in the Washington Post in 2004.

Over the years, the word became synonymous with “Bushspeak,” or a repeated pattern of verbal gaffes (like when Bush used the term ”misunderestimated” in a press conference soon after the 2000 election). Eventually, “strategery” became a symbol of the Bush presidency itself, embraced and even celebrated by conservatives, while simultaneously used by the left as a symbol of the president’s failed policies, particularly when it came to the Iraq War.

The word has become so deeply associated with Bush and his presidency that in 2017, in an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, Bush recalled a story in which he claimed to have invented the word himself, only to be corrected by Lorne Michaels when the two met in person.

To this day, Bush maintains his sense of humor about the sketch and his depiction by Ferrell, saying “it’s important not to take yourself too seriously,” and claiming that the impressions of him presented on SNL never bothered him a bit. Bush himself used the term in a 2001 interview with CNN, presumably as a self-deprecating nod to the comedy sketch.

Indeed, in 2019, the Bush presidential library embraced the term even further when they launched a politically-themed podcast called The Strategerist.

As one of the most enduring catchphrases to emerge from SNL’s long history, “strategery’ continues to be remembered, beloved, and used in political circles. A 2017 Rolling Stone article ranked the Bush-Gore debate sketches as one of the top 20 of all-time, and a year later a petition was even launched on the website charge.org to make the word a permanent entry in Encyclopedia Britannica.

The petition failed to get the support it needed – perhaps the creators needed a better “strategery.”

fire house primary

firehouse primary

A firehouse primary is a candidate nominating contest funded and overseen by a local party organization rather than public election officials.

A standard primary is operated by county and state election officials who are not affiliated with any party. Firehouse primaries are used to determine local, county, and state candidates for general elections in lieu of standard primaries and party conventions. Parties use this primary method to handle nominations without convention floor votes or debates. A firehouse primary allows the sponsoring party to experiment with voting methods and ensure compliance with party rules.

The firehouse primary is sometimes referred to as a mass canvass, a party canvass, or a firehouse caucus. This primary form takes place in a variety of locations including schools, fire stations, and churches.

William Safire detailed the origins of firehouse primary in a 2008 On Language article for the New York Times. Safire found a secondhand reference to the phrase dating to a 1975 article in The Washington Post. This reference mentioned the open aspect of this primary with voters casting ballots at tables instead of booths. Safire’s firsthand research discovered firehouse primary’s print debut in a Washington Times article from 1990.

The firehouse primary is most often associated with the state of Virginia. Google Trends shows that Virginia was the lone state to show search interest in the term between 2004 and 2020. The Republican Party of Virginia includes firehouse primaries as one of several nominating options in its Handbook for Mass Meetings, Conventions and Party Canvasses. The Democratic Party of Virginia featured sample rules for a firehouse primary in its 2016 local elections handbook including the following:

  • A four-hour window for votes starting at noon
  • Certification by each voter of voter and party registration along with a promise not to vote for a candidate outside of the party
  • Using a coin flip to resolve tied votes after canvassing

Virginia may have popularized firehouse primaries but at least one state adopted this method for its 2020 Democratic presidential primary. The rules for the firehouse caucus held by the North Dakota Democratic Party included a pledge of support for the party’s candidates. This caucus represented a significant switch from the 2016 caucuses that required multiple rounds of preference votes. State parties in Alaska and Kansas also adopted the firehouse caucus format for their 2020 presidential nominating contests.

Examples

Virginia Mercury (June 6, 2019): “The local Republican committee in Hanover decided to cancel a party convention in favor of a mass canvass, or firehouse primary.”

The Harrisonburg Citizen (April 27, 2019): “The firehouse primary finished off an eight-week sprint of a campaign for the trio of Republicans since Landes announced March 5 that he wouldn’t run.”

NBC 4 Washington (January 24, 2014): “Northern Virginia Republicans opted to run a firehouse primary to choose a nominee in the 10th Congressional District, where Republican Frank Wolf is retiring after 34 years.”

McConnelling

“McConnelling” is 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.”

barnstormer

A barnstormer travels 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.

The appearances are typically set up by an advance man to make each stop as seamless as possible.

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.”

Huey Long

kingfish

“Kingfish” is the nickname for Huey P. Long, the one-time governor of Louisiana. Long was a divisive figure who played a larger than life role in his state’s politics, and beyond. He continued to loom large even after he was assassinated in 1935.

Long was born on August 30, 1893 in Winnfield, Louisiana, where he family owned a successful farm. He attended Louisiana State University on a scholarship before eventually going to law school. He was admitted to the Louisiana state bar in 1914 but soon went into business, winning a seat on the Louisiana Railroad Commission. There, he used his power to fight monopolies and cultivated a reputation as a friend to the working class.

In 1928, Long ran for governor of Louisiana. It was his second attempt, after a run in which he placed third. Long won the governership in 1928. He ran under the slogan, “Every man a king,” which some say was the origin of his nickname, Kingfish. Others believe that Long took the nickname “Kingfish” from a character on the Amos n Andy show, a minstrel show (in Long’s time, the show was aired on the radio; it later switched to television).

Long has been described as a racist, who gave speeches denigrating African Americans and behaved callously to African Americans he encountered in his own life. As governor, one of his first moves was to segregate the state’s bus system. At the same time, Long’s defenders say that his racial politics were relatively mild for the time and place in which he lived.

As governor, Long was seen as both an authoritarian and a populist figure. He built up the power of the executive, centralized investigative power, and made it easier for police to make arrests. At the same time, Long increased spending on education and on infrastructure. He imposed higher taxes on big businesses, notably on Standard Oil.

After Long had spent less than a year in office, the Louisiana State legislature moved to impeach him. His opponents argued that he had accepted bribes, carried a weapon, and behaved inappropriately in public. The impeachment attempt ultimately failed.

In 1930, Long successfully ran for the US Senate. There, he pushed for a series of economic reforms known as the “Share Our Wealth” plan. “Share Our Wealth” clubs popped up over the country. At Long’s insistence, the clubs were racially segregated.

In 1935, Long was in Baton Rouge when a man named Carl Weiss approached him. Weiss was the son in law of one of Long’s political rivals. Weiss pulled out a gun and shot Long. Long died several days later. His last words, reportedly, were “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.”

Long continues to be a controversial figure, decades after his death. He is remembered by many for his love of power and for what some see as demagoguery. Others praise him for his financial reforms and his attacks on big business. In any event, the name, and the fame, of the Kingfish lives on.

goo goo

“Goo goo is 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 “kangaroo ticket” is a ticket for higher office in which the person at the bottom of the ticket is considered more electable or is more well-known than the person at the top.

The Chicago Tribune defines the term as: “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 term dates back to Mississippi politics from the 1840s, as seen in this news clipping from the Vicksburg Whig, which describes the ticket of James K. Polk for President and Silas Wright for Vice President as a “kangaroo ticket,” since Wright was considered more electable. The editor explains his rationale for the term: “A Kangaroo Ticket, by G-d – strongest in the hind legs.”

While so-called “kangaroo tickets” are rare in national politics, there are some notable examples of the term being used throughout history, as on October 23, 1971, when the New York Times reported: “[John Connally would run for Vice President if asked by President Nixon, but] he would insist that the Nixon-Connally partnership be advertised as a ‘kangaroo ticket.’”

In a 1984 New York Post article, the author described one Texas politician’s reaction to FDR’s 1934 nomination as a “kangaroo ticket,” adding: “It’s stronger in the hindquarters than in the front.”

In 1860, during the election that eventually led to the Lincoln presidency, in the lead up to the Civil War, the little-known Constitutional Union Party put forth the ticket of John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts. Everett was an esteemed orator and lecturer from the North and Bell was a more reserved and lesser-known candidate from the South. This unusual combination of candidates earned them the label of “kangaroo ticket,” as reported in Douglas Egerton’s book about the election of 1860 called Year of Meteors.

Perhaps the most notable visible depiction of the concept of a “kangaroo ticket” can be seen here in this political cartoon from Judge Magazine, mocking the ticket of Grover Cleveland and Thomas Hendricks for the Democratic nomination in 1884.

The Great Mentioner

“The Great Mentioner” describes 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.”

Akinize

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

The “nuclear option” is 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

plausible deniability

Plausible deniability is the ability to deny any involvement in illegal or unethical activities, because there is no clear evidence to prove involvement. 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 is used both in law and in politics. In politics, plausible deniability usually applies to the practice of keeping the leadership of a large organization uninformed about illicit actions that the organization is carrying out. The leaders then have “plausible deniability” if they are ever questioned about those illicit actions. In other words, they truly don’t know about any illegal actions, and so they are automatically clear of blame.

The term was first coined when the Church Committee, a committee of the US Senate, was investigating US intelligence agencies during the 1970s. The committee found that the CIA had carried out a plot to try and assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro; the Church Committee believed that the president was supportive of the action. However, the president was able to plausibly deny any knowledge of the plot against Castro, since he truly had no knowledge of the specifics of the plan.

Of course, the concept of plausible deniability goes back further than the Church Committee. Likewise, the roots of the term also go further back, at least as far as a National Security Council paper which was issued in 1948, during the presidency of Harry Truman. That paper notably defined covert operations as “all activities…which are conducted or sponsored by this Government against hostile foreign states or groups or in support of friendly foreign states or groups but which are so planned and executed that any US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.”

In modern politics, the term plausible deniability often comes up in discussions of political campaigns.  Plausible deniability allows candidates to keep their hands clean when their campaigns, or their supporters, use unsavory campaign tactics and launch dirty attacks against other candidates. For example, some journalists charged that George W Bush’s first presidential campaign deliberately used surrogates in order to smear Bush’s political rivals; by giving the surrogates the dirty work, the campaign escaped public backlash.

Plausible deniability can also refer to a politician’s attempt to test the waters, by quietly trying out how the public might respond to certain acts. In 2015, journalists wrote that Joe Biden wanted to maintain plausible deniability even as he explored a possible White House run. Biden quietly visited certain states and met with certain political power players, without definitively committing himself to throw his hat in the ring. This allowed the former vice president to evaluate his chances of winning the race, without risking the humiliation or loss of faith that could come with trying and failing.

During the Trump administration, some pundits have argued that the president took the concept of plausible deniability to a new level. They argue that the president speaks with a deliberate lack of clarity, implying damaging things but never actually saying them. They believe that the president uses a combination of nonverbal communication, dog whistles, and implication in order to make allegations about his political enemies.

Hastert rule

Hastert rule

The Hastert rule is an informal guiding principle for leaders in the House of Representatives that dictates a majority of the majority party support any measure before it receives a vote.

This principle is named after former U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R), who served in the position from 1999 to 2007. Republicans in the House used the principle dating back to Newt Gingrich’s speakership from 1995 to 1999. Gingrich and Hastert responded to prior speakerships that blurred Republican and Democratic lines on areas of common policy interests.

Hastert served as speaker during a period of Republican resurgence with George W. Bush’s election in 2000 and GOP control of the Senate after 2002. In 2004, Hastert said the following about requiring a majority of the majority to schedule floor votes:

On occasion, a particular issue might excite a majority made up mostly of the minority. Campaign finance is a particularly good example of this phenomenon. The job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority.

The speaker framed this principle as a compromise position from previous years when the Republican majority excluded House Democrats from drafting substantive bills. The Hastert Rule is intended to solidfy the party line, prevent dissent within the majority and control the majority party’s policy agenda.

After Democrats took control of the House in 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to use the Hastert rule in managing her caucus. Pelosi wanted Republicans to be part of the process and sought broader support for major legislation. This appeal for bipartisan votes was countered by an increasingly polarized political environment that created contentious debates over substantive legislation. For example, the 2009 vote on the Affordable Health Care for America Act received only one Republican vote and lost 39 Democratic votes.

Pelosi’s successor, John Boehner (R), flouted the Hastert rule on multiple occasions before resigning from the speakership in 2015. Boehner allowed three bills to reach the floor in 2013 that were not supported by a majority of the Republican legislators. He counted on a small number of Republicans and a majority of Democrats to pass bills reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, approving Hurricane Sandy relief funds, and avoiding a fiscal cliff.

Paul Ryan (R) restored the Hastert rule following his selection as Speaker of the House in 2015. Boehner’s resignation followed pressure by conservative members of the party to reassert the rule. Ryan promised these members that he would apply the rule to any immigration bill that emerged from the U.S. Senate.

Examples

The Hill (April 28, 2016): “Now some conservatives are saying that may be too narrow an application of the GOP practice known for years as the ‘Hastert Rule’.”

The Atlantic (July 21, 2013): “Today, Boehner’s violations of the Hastert rule have angered conservatives who see themselves as the ones marginalized by his ability to get around their demands.”

NPR (June 11, 2013): “Boehner has never committed to follow the Hastert rule in every case, and in reality even Hastert violated his own rule.”

 

six-year itch

The “six-year itch” is the election held in the sixth 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

An “elastic state” is one 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.

dark money

“Dark money” is funds used for a political campaign that are not properly disclosed before an election.

The term was apparently coined by Mother Jones.

deduct box

The “deduct box” was 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

A “press gaggle” is an informal briefing by the White House press secretary that, unlike a backgrounder, is on the record. However, 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.”

wonk

A “wonk” is a person preoccupied with arcane details of public policy.

DINO

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

When it’s time to leave a race for public office, candidates often announce their “suspended campaign” instead of actually dropping out.

Practically speaking, there is not a big difference and federal law does not define or officially recognize the act of a presidential candidate “suspending” their campaign instead of formally ending it.

However, CNN points out there are two important differences between suspending a campaign and dropping out: 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.”

There’s one more reason to “suspend” a campaign: In theory, a suspended campaign could spring back to life if the political landscape changes dramatically.

Slate observes 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 “stalking horse” is 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 “Dorothy Dixer” is 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.

GOTV

GOTV is 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

hiking the Appalachian Trail

“Hiking the Appalachian Trail” is a 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.

entryism

“Entryism” is 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.

leak

A leak in politics is 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.

bundlers

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

brokered convention

A brokered convention takes place when no one candidate wins a majority delegates during the presidential primary to earn their party’s nomination in the first vote at the nominating conference. When that happens, the nomination is “brokered,” or determined through horse trading and backroom deals.

Brokered conventions, also called deliberative or contested conventions, were the norm in the United States until the second half of the 20th century. At that time, party “bosses” wielded enormous power, and candidates were often chosen after hours of deal-making in smoke-filled rooms. Warren G. Harding, for example, was famously selected to be the Republican presidential candidate after a series of conclaves by party leaders. And in 1924, Democratic delegates took 103 ballots to select the little-known candidate John Davis.

The most recent brokered convention was the Democratic convention of 1952, from which Adlai Stevenson emerged as the winner. In 1948, the Republican party held a brokered convention and selected Thomas Dewey as the party’s candidate.

By 1972, almost every state in the union had established either a primary election or a caucus system, making it possible for voters to choose the candidate they wanted to run for their party. The brokered convention became irrelevant, since primary votes and caucuses meant that there was always a clear frontrunner by the time a party held its political convention. Both of the major political parties also allow candidates to win the nomination with a simple majority, rather than a two thirds majority; this makes it easier to determine a frontrunner as well.

Analysts have also pointed out that the cost of modern elections, and the 24-hour news cycle, also means that all but the most popular candidates will drop out before they get to the convention. As a result, the winner is always clear by the time a party holds its political convention. As a result, modern political conventions are  often viewed as spectacles, rather than as formative political events.

At the same time, pundits and political junkies still love to talk about the possibility of a brokered convention. In 2016, there was a lot of speculation that Republicans might have a brokered convention. The speculation largely grew out of the idea that Republican leaders wanted to “stop” Donald Trump from winning the party’s nomination to the presidency and were troubled by signs that “favorite sons” like Jeb Bush were losing out to Trump. In the event, the Republican convention was not brokered.

In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, many wondered whether the Democrats would have a “contested,” or brokered convention. Analysts have pointed out that Democrats are under heightened pressure to find a candidate who can defeat President Trump. It’s also possible that “superdelegates,” who are automatically made delegates because of their positions, could sway the outcome of the Democratic convention. Senator Bernie Sanders has said that it would be a “very divisive moment” if the candidate with a plurality of votes does not win the party’s presidential nomination.

But often 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

Godwin’s Law is a term first promulgated in 1990 by author and lawyer Mike Godwin. Originally intended as a lesson in information “memetics,” or how the evolution of information spreads and evolves on the Internet, the term is used to describe the phenomenon that the longer an online discussion about politics lingers, the more likely it is that someone will make a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.

Specifically, the law reads: “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.”

As online chatting, comment boards, and fervent political discussion increased during the 1990s and into the 2000s, Godwin’s Law has become more and more relevant.

Godwin from a 1994 Wired Magazine article: “In discussions about guns and the Second Amendment, for example, gun-control advocates are periodically reminded that Hitler banned personal weapons. And birth-control debates are frequently marked by pro-lifers’ insistence that abortionists are engaging in mass murder, worse than that of Nazi death camps. And in any newsgroup in which censorship is discussed, someone inevitably raises the specter of Nazi book-burning.”

Years later, Godwin elaborated further on his own law: “It’s deliberately pseudo-scientific — meant to evoke the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the inevitable decay of physical systems over time. My goal was to hint that those who escalate a debate into Adolf Hitler or Nazi comparisons may be thinking lazily, not adding clarity or wisdom, and contributing to the decay of an argument over time.”

While Godwin’s law is very well known, it’s not often the subject of mainstream conversation or reported on the news because of the obvious sensitivity of its subject matter.Indeed, in 2017, when Godwin and his law were more openly discussed in the aftermath of the White Supremacist march on Charlottesville and the controversy that followed, Godwin, who rarely speaks out, was vocal: “One of the reasons that people have ever paid attention to Godwin’s Law at all is that I have been very careful to avoid policing how people invoke it, or use it, or apply it, or misapply it, except in fairly rare circumstances. But this was a no-brainer.”

In a Time Magazine article that same year, Godwin was quick to point out that all presidents have been accused of being like Hitler, proving his law true: “As far as I know, every President who has been President from the time I got on the internet has been compared by someone to Hitler. People compared President Obama to Hitler. People have forgotten there were pictures of Obama with a Hitler moustache. That talk was crazy.”

In 2013, Godwin’s Law made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 2019, the U.K’s Telegraph put Godwin’s Law into its all-time list of top 10 Internet rules and laws.

Friday news dump

Releasing bad news or documents on a Friday afternoon in an attempt to avoid media scrutiny is often called a “Friday news dump” by members of the media.

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

smell of jet fuel

“Smell of jet fuel” is 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 “pen and pad briefing” is a briefing held by lawmakers or White House officials at which video and photography is not allowed. It’s similar to a backgrounder.

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

“Ping pong” refers to 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 jungle primary is an election in which all candidates for elected office run in the same primary regardless of political party.

Also known as the “blanket primary“, “open 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 Mae West hold 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 tag-team hold is when 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

A Senate hold is how 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

front-porch campaign

A front-porch campaign is one in which the candidate stays close to home throughout the campaign. Instead of crisscrossing the country to woo voters, the candidate connects with supporters locally (by making speeches from his front porch, for example).

The term is often associated with William McKinley, who ran a successful front-porch campaign in 1896. McKinley, a Republican, won the presidency in spite of the fact that he spent almost the entire campaign at his home in Canton, Ohio. McKinley outspent his opponent, and he also had the benefit of working with one of the great political strategists of the time, an Ohio businessman named Marcus Hanna. Hanna acted as McKinley’s press agent, publicist, and reputation manager.

McKinley’s Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, was an unusually active campaigner who traveled around the country calling for America to abandon the gold standard. Bryan’s speech at the Democratic national convention, in which he warned that America’s poor farmers were being “crucified on a cross of gold,” remains one of the most famous speeches in US politics, and Bryan delivered the speech in campaign stops around the country. Bryan made an estimated 600 campaign stop. Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough to win the presidential election.

McKinley wasn’t the first presidential candidate to conduct a front-porch campaign. In 1880 another Republican, James A. Garfield, ran a successful campaign from the spacious front porch of his home in Mentor, Ohio. The railroad companies agreed to build a spur line right up to Garfield’s house, and they offered a discount for crowds going to visit the candidate. Members of the press were invited to pitch their tents on Garfield’s lawn and listen to him speaking from his porch.

Visitors were also treated to scenes of the Garfield family’s domestic life: Garfield playing with his children on the front lawn; the whole family eating dinner together; Garfield’s mother pitting cherries in her rocking chair. The overall effect was of a strong, traditional family unit, an image which resonated with the country, especially in the aftermath of the troubled presidency of Ulysses S Grant.

Eight years later, Benjamin Harrison ran another successful presidential campaign from his front porch. Harrison, a Civil War general, addressed crowds of supports and curiosity-seekers at his home in  Indianapolis. Harrison carefully avoided the mudslinging and harsh rhetoric that had characterized earlier campaigns; giving speeches from his front porch allowed him to seem wholesome and to stay above the fray. Meanwhile, his political campaign ran a fiercer battle against the incumbent, Grover Cleveland.

In 1920, Warren G Harding conducted a successful front-porch campaign of his own. Harding’s victory is all the more interesting because his opponent, James Cox, carried out a very energetic campaign. Cox traveled from town to town and made full use of the newly-invented microphone to address large crowds. Harding, on the other hand, stayed in his home in Marion, Ohio, delivering speeches to admirers from his round front porch. Harding won the election by a landslide.

gotcha question

A “gotcha question” is one 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 “Richards effect” is 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

Sister Souljah moment

A “Sister Souljah moment” is a 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.

In 1992, riots swept across Los Angeles following the acquittal of five LAPD officers for the allegedly brutal beating of Rodney King. Writer and rapper Sister Souljah expressed sympathy for the rioters and said that she wanted to see an end to black people killing each other – instead, she said, black people should start killing white people.

“I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?” Souljah told the Washington Post.

Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination at the time. During a meeting with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, Clinton spoke out against Sister Souljah’s comments, saying that her comments were full of hate. Clinton compared Sister Souljah to the white nationalist David Duke, calling them racist.

At the time, pundits said that Clinton had denounced Sister Souljah in an attempt to court suburban and blue collar white voters. Those groups were often described as “Reagan Democrats” at the time, and Clinton’s strategists believed that he needed their votes if he stood a chance of winning the election. The Sister Souljah moment was widely seen as an attempt to prove to those key groups that Clinton was on their side and would take a strong stand on issues like welfare reform.

Joan Vennochi wrote, “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.”

A decade later, in 2002, President George W Bush had a “Sister Souljah moment” when he publicly denounced Majority Leader Trent Lott. Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, gave a speech in which he said that the country would be in a better place if the segregationist Strom Thurmond had won the 1948 presidential election. President Bush’s aides said at the time that Bush felt that if he didn’t speak out against Lott, he would not be able to reach out to the African American community.

Obama had his own “Sister Souljah” moment when he was a candidate for the presidency. Obama was asked about his connection to Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of the church which Obama attended in Chicago. Wright was known for his fiery sermons and for remarks which appeared to denounce the US government as racist. Obama first tried to explain his nuanced views on Wright, but as clips of the pastor’s speeches circulated, Obama disowned Wright and left the church.

In 2015 Sister Souljah, now a best-selling novelist, gave an interview to Time Magazine. She suggested her own definition of what the term Sister Souljah moment should mean: “when you meet a beautiful, powerful woman – and you just can’t forget her.”

honest graft

Honest graft refers to the money-making opportunities that might arise while holding public office. The activities are, strictly speaking, legal, although they might raise eyebrows or provoke criticism.

The term “honest graft” was coined by George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall boss and political operative. Plunkitt served in both houses of the New York State legislature during the late 19th century, but he also operated informally out of the New York City courthouse. Today, he is best known for his book on “practical politics,” which includes his definition of honest graft.

Plunkitt argued that it is absolutely legitimate for politicians to take advantage of any opportunities that they come across. Plunkitt looked down on “dishonest graft,” which included corruption and blackmail. But he upheld the right of politicians to line their pockets, as long as they did so legally. “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em,” he famously said.

Plunkitt did things like buy up public land after he got a tip that his political party was about to build a park in the area. When it came time to construct the park, he sold his land back, holding out for the highest possible price. Plunkitt didn’t see this as a waste of public funds; instead, he compared himself to a stock trader who studies futures. “It’s just like lookin’ ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It’s honest graft, and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year,” he wrote.

In modern times, few politicians brag about looking for honest graft in the way that Plunkitt did. But journalists and advocacy groups often point out examples of what they see as barely-legal profiteering by politicians. In 2012, CBS News published a detailed look at how members of Congress use their inside knowledge to win big in the stock market. CBS pointed out that Members of Congress are free to use their knowledge about government contracts and upcoming legislation when they trade in the stock market, for example. Many compare this behavior to insider trading, but there is no law to prevent it.

Members of Congress also reportedly made a fortune by betting against the stock market just before the 2008 financial crisis hit. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke had, of course, tipped them off about the coming crash. And, like George Plunkitt, members of Congress also use their inside knowledge and power to make profitable real estate deals. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, for example, once used her influence to push through a 20 million dollar waterfront improvement project that drastically increased the value of property which she owned.

Over the years, Bill Clinton has faced questions about the big speaking fees he collects, and about the donations given to the Clinton Foundation. President Trump has also been accused of lining his pockets during his presidency. He has been questioned about his hotels and his golf courses, as well as his business connections to world leaders. Unlike George Plunkitt, none of today’s politicians wants to talk about honest graft, but the allegations persist.

cracker vote

The “cracker vote” refers to 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

The “fifth column” is 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.

agitprop

Agitprop is political propaganda, especially in the form of art or literature, which is used to advance a political stance.

The term originated in Soviet Russia and is an abbreviation of agitatsiya propaganda (agitation propaganda.) Propaganda was a key aspect of Soviet governing strategy.

In a 1902 pamphlet, What Is to be Done, Vladimir Lenin set out his beliefs about the roles of propaganda and agitation. In Lenin’s view, each had an important role to play. The propagandist worked mainly in print and produced logical analysis of social problems like poverty. The agitator, for his part, operated on an emotional level, rousing people to take an interest in social ills.

By the 1920s, the Agitation and Propaganda section was a well-established part of the Soviet government. The section operated at the most local level, and agitators were the Party’s chief means of communication with most people. Posters, sculptures, and paintings – usually done in a stylized, hyper-realist style – also were a major part of Russian agitprop.

Agitprop is also deeply rooted in North Korea. The posters and statues produced by North Korea’s government look like something straight out of a 1950s-era Soviet propaganda department. The leaders depicted are different, of course, but the stylized, heavy-handed imagery is the same. And today, decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, North Korea continues to churn out posters of beaming factory workers.

In the west, the term “agitprop” is usually associated with artist and left-wing causes. The work of street artists like Banksy is often described as agitprop. Certain conservative pundits argue that the entire output of Hollywood amount to “pro-communist” agitprop. But the term isn’t restricted to the left. It’s also thrown around – usually in a derogatory sense – to describe anyone who tries to push a strong ideology.

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the freshman congressmember from New York, has often been described as a master of agitprop. Ocasio Cortez is widely acclaimed for her use of social media and her ability to stir people with slogans and imagery. Her critics, though, complain that Ocasio Cortez veers to close to Soviet-style propaganda.

Conservatives said that a series of posters that Ocasio Cortez produced in 2019 looked “like something the Soviet Union would post throughout the Red Square.” (The posters were produced to highlight Ocasio Cortez’s proposals for a “Green New Deal.” Ocasio Cortez’s staff has said that their retro style was inspired by New Deal-era artwork.)

President Trump’s former adviser, Steve Bannon, is also seen as a master of agitprop. Bannon was at the helm of the conservative Breitbart Media, but he also spent many years working in Hollywood, as a producer and a director. Bannon directed a series of documentaries, including one about the Tea Party movement (“Battle for America”) and another about the Occupy movement (“Occupy Unmasked).

Bannon himself once said that his goal was to “overwhelm” his audience. Bannon’s critics wrote that watching the documentaries was like being in an “agitprop fever-dream.”

roorback

“Roorback” is 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.

flip-flop

A “flip-flop” is 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.”

Astrotweeting

“Astrotweeting” is 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 (R):

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

Washington Monument strategy

The “Washington Monument strategy” is 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 money blurt is the 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

“Spin Alley” is 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

A “money bomb” is 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

Rose Garden campaign

A Rose Garden campaign is when an incumbent president takes advantage of the power and prestige of his office to help him run for 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.

The term “Rose Garden campaign” was first used by then-candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976. At the time, Carter was challenging the incumbent president Gerald Ford. Carter complained that Ford was using a “Rose Garden strategy” to get himself free publicity, staying in the public eye by signing bills and making pronouncements. Meanwhile Carter, a relatively unknown peanut farmer from Georgia, had to work much harder to get attention.

President Ford’s “Rose Garden strategy” was not literally confined to the White House Rose Garden. In October of 1976, President Ford invited Queen Elizabeth to visit him at the White House to celebrate the bicentennial for America’s declaration of independence. Inevitably, the visit garnered a lot of media attention. Ford also held a series of televised interviews with the former baseball star Joe Garagiola.

Rose Garden strategy has both a literal and a figurative meaning. On the literal level, incumbent presidents use the White House Rose Garden as a stage for signing bills and holding media events. The setting evokes presidential power and stability. It’s an iconic location, and being photographed there sends a clear message to the public.

On a metaphorical level, a Rose Garden strategy refers to any time the incumbent president distributes political favors or largesse as part of his re-election strategy. This can mean offering economic packages to certain key states. It can also mean making key announcements about military victories, or about trade, or anything which impacts voters. Ahead of the 1936 election, for example, Franklin Roosevelt famously pushed for more economic support for workers and farmers, telling his aides that he wanted cotton prices to go up and that he didn’t want workers to be laid off.

In the first half of  2019, the New York Times reported that President Trump had held at least 11 events in the Rose Garden – more than twice the number of such events that he held in 2017. The Times concluded that Trump wanted to use his Rose Garden appearances to bolster his public image as part of his re-election campaign.

“He’s an indoor creature, but he wants to be seen outdoors,” Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, told the Times. “He likes the Oval Office because he could do the big signature and show power. But after a while, it becomes an image of a guy who is locked in a room. This is a deeply image-driven president. In the Rose Garden, he’s able to project that he’s outside and enjoying the compound.”

Also in 2019, The New Republic accused presidential hopeful Joe Biden of employing a “wilted Rose Garden” strategy. The publication argued that Biden, who served as Barack Obama’s vice president, was basing his campaign around his vice presidential past. The strategy, New Republic argued, was one born out of weakness, rather than strength. Its goal was to bypass Biden’s problematic voting record in the Senate and to keep voters focused on his two terms serving under a popular president.

dummymander

“Dummymander” is a play on the term “gerrymander,” and it refers to a redrawing of a district map that actually ends up benefiting the opposite party that was designed to help.

When a political party in power reshapes the map of a district to gain advantage in an election, this is called “gerrymandering.” ”Dummymandering” occurs when that map, over time, actually ends up benefiting the opposite party (hence the use of the term “dummy).” Simply put, it’s a gerrymander that backfires.

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

The risks of a gerrymander becoming a dummymander for either party are sometimes hard to measure. In a Washington Post article, political reporter John Gastil explains how GOP gerrymandering leading up to the 2016 election could have backfired: “That strategy created so many marginal Republican districts that if the GOP loses the bulk of the seats at or below R+2, it would also lose its congressional majority. A catastrophe that claimed every GOP seat at or below R+4 would bring the GOP caucus close to the size of today’s House Democrats.”

While the risk of dummymandering always exists, some political science experts argue that as techniques for redistricting improve, the odds of it happening are decreasing: “The ability to create the desired political effect increases every decade with advances in technology, making it easier for legislators and advocacy groups to target partisan precincts and predict their likely voting behavior for years to come. “Dummymanders”–sociologist Bernard Grofman’s term for overly greedy gerrymanders that backfire– have become increasingly rare as sophistication about redistricting grows.”

This was reinforced by Supreme Court justice Elana Kagan, as reported by New York Magazine: She observed: “Old-time efforts, based on little more than guesses, sometimes led to so-called dummymanders — gerrymanders that went spectacularly wrong. Not likely in today’s world. Mapmakers now have access to more granular data about party preference and voting behavior than ever before. County-level voting data has given way to precinct-level or city-block-level data; and increasingly, mapmakers avail themselves of data sets providing wide ranging information about even individual voters.”

Still, with more and more gerrymandering comes the risk of more and more dummymandering. In a 2015 Politico article that argued the merits of gerrymandering, the author acknowledges: “To be sure, gerrymandering schemes rarely create a statewide plan that is as competitive as it could be; the risk of dummymandering is too high.” The author goes on: “This happens when parties spread their voters just a little too thin, turning a gerrymander into a ‘dummymander.’ When an unfavorable political tide sweeps through, dummymandered districts switch parties, undoing the advantage the gerrymandering party had supposedly engineered for itself.”

by-election

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.

frugging

“Frugging” is 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

The “candy desk” is where a supply of candy is kept in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. George Murphy (R-CA) originated the practice of keeping a supply of candy in his desk for the enjoyment of his colleagues in 1965. 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

An invisible primary is said to begin when a candidate formally announces their plans to run for office. The invisible primary comes to a close when the actual primary season begins.

The invisible primary is a testing-ground for candidates and their advance teams. It’s an opportunity to find out how much support they can gather before the real primary is held. In fact, the invisible primary can often make or break candidates – candidates who don’t get enough shows of support during the invisible primary often end up bowing out of the race, sometimes before the primary season even begins.

A key example of that in the 2020 presidential race would be Sen. Cory Booker. The New Jersey senator dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 13, 2020, almost a month ahead of the Iowa caucus. Booker had been struggling in the polls for some time; he also wasn’t able to raise enough money to keep his campaign going and to maintain his reputation as a serious candidate.

The invisible primary is often referred to as the “money primary.” That’s because pundits and party bosses are closely watching to see how effectively each candidate can fundraise. Critics of the invisible primary say that effectively, it forces candidates to curry favor with the most wealthy and powerful Americans. Big donors, as well as well-connected fundraisers (“bundlers”) have a disproportionate role in picking candidates.  On the right, wealthy donors like the Koch brothers, or Sheldon Adelson, have traditionally held a great deal of sway. On the left, prominent fundraisers include George Soros and the Facebook founder Denis Moskowitz.

In recent years, more and more presidential candidates are, themselves, extremely wealthy men who have the capacity to fund their own campaigns. This has arguably changed the whole nature of the invisible primary, and may have lessened the power traditionally held by wealthy donors and fundraisers.

teflon president

Teflon president

The term “Teflon president” describes a president who has a seemingly magical ability to avoid blame. A Teflon president is so charismatic that — like a Teflon pan — nothing unwanted can stick to him. No matter how much dirt his opponents uncover, the voters forgive him for it.

Rep. Pat Schroeder, a Democrat from Colorado, coined the term in 1983 when she took the House floor to denounce then-President Ronald Reagan. Schroeder said of Reagan, “He has been perfecting the Teflon-coated presidency: He sees to it that nothing sticks to him.” (Schroeder later said that the expression came to her while she was frying eggs in a Teflon, or non-stick pan.)

Reagan’s critics charged that he was bumbling and incompetent – but the public continued to love him. To this day, most people associate the term “Teflon president” with Ronald Reagan. But other presidents have been described as “Teflon” also. Pat Schroeder herself told CNN that Bill Clinton was very “Teflonish.” She mused that in fact, more and more politicians seemed to be doing everything they could to avoid responsibility:

I mean, the interesting thing about that…is my hope was that people would say, ‘That’s right. He is the captain of the ship and the captain of the ship has some responsibility.’ They didn’t say that. Instead they said, ‘How do I get one of those Teflon coats? Where do they sell them?’

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.”

Pundits have also accused Barack Obama of wearing a Teflon coat. Analysts pointed out that even when voters said they disagreed with President Obama’s policies, his approval ratings remained high. In 2009,for example, only 44 percent of Americans said they agreed with the way Obama was handling healthcare. But 63 percent of voters said they had a favorable view of the president.

More recently, a number of commentators have asked whether President Trump is also made of Teflon. After all, they reason, Trump has survived an impeachment hearing and a number of public scandals within his administration. In fact, Trump has been called the “luckiest guy ever to hold the office of president of the United States, because of his seemingly inexhaustible ability to dodge the slings and arrows that are thrown at him.

“Teflon” can also be used to describe any powerful person who manages to avoid blame over a long period of time. The New York mafia boss John Gotti was dubbed the Teflon Don, for example, after he managed to avoid conviction in trial after trial during the 1980s. Gotti was finally convicted in 1992 on 14 counts of conspiracy to commit murder and racketeering.

In 1986 the New York Times noted that DuPont, the manufacturers of Teflon, were angry about the way the word Teflon was being used in the press. As it turned out, DuPont didn’t care that people were describing the president as “Teflon.” The company simply wanted people to remember to put a trademark symbol next to the word. In a press release, Dupont said, ”It is not, alas, a verb or an adjective, not even when applied to the President of the United States!”

talking points

“Talking points” are a clear and concise list of ideas making up a politician’s main arguments in a stump 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 “red herring” is 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.”

lettermarking

Lettermarking is when lawmakers send letters to government 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

“You’re no Jack Kennedy” is 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

A “Cherokee Strip” is the seating area in the U.S. Senate chamber when some members of the majority party mist sit on the side of the minority party.

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 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 “demon sheep” is 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.

blue-slipping

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

In politics, a “turkey farm” refers to a government agency or department that is staffed primarily with political appointments and other patronage hires. In particular, it is used to refer to hires that are underqualified but are put in positions of power because they either support the appointer politically or financially.

A 2010 Vanderbilt University study noted 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 political jobs for campaign staff, key donors, or well-connected job-seekers.”

Often, turkey farms are places where sycophants are rewarded for their political loyalty with stable or high-profile government jobs.

But in other cases, turkey farms are places to put “non-performers,” bad employees, or federal workers considered “turkeys,” so that managers can avoid the lengthy process of other alternatives, as outlined in Washington Monthly: “Not infrequently, federal managers use two traditional means of shedding non-performers. By writing glowing letters of recommendation, a boss can get a turkey promoted to a different office. Fortunately, most civil servants are too ethical to use such tactics, and anyway, you can only do that once or twice before your credibility in the bureaucracy is shot. More typically, bosses place non-performers in ‘turkey farms,’ ‘dead pools,’ or (if it is a single person) ‘on the shelf.’ By quarantining non-performers, a good manager can save the rest of the organization from their influence.”

This method of stashing subpar employees was described as a “turkey farm” during the Nixon Administration in a document referred to as the “Malek Manual,” named after Nixon’s special assistant. He first outlined this method of dealing with unwanted employees while still staying within the confines of the federal merit system.

One agency in the federal government that’s frequently accused of being a “turkey farm” is FEMA, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. During the administration of George W. Bush, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA’s handling of the disaster exacerbated an already bad reputation, as highlighted here: “FEMA had gone through periods of obsession with unrealistic nuclear war planning, thereby making it unprepared for the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew in 1989 and 1992. The agency became known as the ‘Turkey Farm’ because of its management by third-rate political appointees.”

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.”

Other agencies also have a history of being labeled “turkey farms” as well. From FCW: “Political turkey farms — agencies filled with former campaign staffers with thin resumes — made the headlines in the 1990s. In the George H.W. Bush administration, the Commerce Department became known as “Bush Gardens.”

Election Administrator’s Prayer

The Election Administrator’s Prayer is “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

The “incumbent rule” is 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.”

teabaggers

A term “teabaggers” is a derogatory nickname 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 teabaggers and empowered that whole wing of the Republican Party to where it now controls the agenda for the Republicans.”

gypsy moth Republican

A “gypsy moth Republican” is 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.

A gypsy moth Republican is related to a RINO.

bundling

“Bundling” is 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.”

gobbledygook

“Gobbledygook” is 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 May 21, 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.”

bunk

“Bunk” is 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

Bradley effect

The “Bradley effect” is a polling phenomenon involving high support for non-white and non-female candidates in opinion polls not reflected by election results.

Origins and History

This phenomenon was coined following Tom Bradley’s (D) run for California governor in 1982. Bradley, an African American and the mayor of Los Angeles, was ahead of opponent George Deukmejian (R) entering the final days of the election. On Election Night, Deukmejian defeated Bradley by less than 2% of the vote. Political observers posited that some white voters voiced their support for Bradley in phone polling to avoid appearing politically incorrect or racist.

Additional examples of the Bradley effect followed the namesake’s narrow loss. Chicago mayoral candidate Harold Washington won a more narrow victory over a white opponent than polling indicated. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 Democratic presidential campaign received a smaller vote share from white voters than their expectations from polls. Colin Powell considered a Republican presidential run in 1996 but was advised that the Bradley effect would be prominent in an increasingly white party.

The Bradley effect has weakened over time thanks to polling precision and changing cultural values. U.S. Senate candidate Harold Ford (D) received roughly the same amount of white support in polling as he received on Election Night. Barack Obama (D) flipped the Bradley effect on its head in the 2008 presidential election by winning white voters in previously Republican states like Indiana and North Carolina.

FiveThirtyEight’s study of the 2008 Democratic primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton showed the signs of a reverse Bradley effect. Obama received 3.3% more of the vote across all primaries than was indicated by polling including a higher proportion of the white vote. The publication acknowledged that hidden racial motivates may have existed but did not impact Obama’s chances in the aggregate.

The concept of the Bradley effect has been called different names and expanded in scope since 1982. Virginia gubernatorial candidate Douglas Wilder (D) won narrowly in 1989, leading state observers to call it the Wilder effect. David Dinkins (D) won one term as mayor of New York City and lost to Rudy Giuliani in 1993 with some attribution to a Dinkins effect. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Donald Trump has been attributed to something similar to the Bradley effect. Pew Research Center noted that polls may have underestimated Trump’s support and overestimated Clinton’s support due to concerns by respondents about their level of support.

Examples

Vanity Fair (November 3, 2016): “A more significant Bradley effect was visible among certain demographic groups, however. Morning Consult found that voters with a college degree supported Clinton by a 21-point margin in phone interviews, but only by a 7-point margin online.”

The New Republic (October 12, 2008): “But now Lance Tarrance, the pollster for Bradley in that race, has an article up at RCP suggesting that the Bradley Effect was merely a case of bad polling — and that his campaign’s internals had shown a dead heat.”

Politico (October 9, 2008): “There was, in the primary, clearly a ‘reverse Bradley Effect’ among black voters, whose support for Obama was consistently understated in the polling.”

heck of a job

A “heck of a job” is 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 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.

goo-goos

The term “goo-goos” refers to 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

The “Eleventh Commandment” is 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

“Filling the tree” is 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

“Flake rate” is a calculation of people who sign up to volunteer for political canvassing or events but do not participate.

Flake rate is presented as a percentage of volunteers who initially sign up for campaign activities but ultimately decline to attend. The Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment suggests that 50% of volunteers recruited for an event will not participate.

A low flake rate shows strong buy-in by volunteers in a campaign’s message and structure. A high flake rate can be attributed to superficial campaign development or lack of engagement with supporters beyond their initial sign-up. A negative flake rate occurs when more volunteers show up for a campaign action compared to the original sign-up list.

The Campaign Workshop provides a representative sample of suggestions for campaigns seeking to reduce their flake rates. These suggestions include frequent confirmations with volunteers and encouraging participation as part of daily routines. Recognition for volunteer performances and a variety of work can also encourage higher participation rates.

This term is largely used by political operatives, nonprofit leaders, and other experts. Google’s Ngram Viewer does not register the term in English texts to 2012. The Google Trends interest chart shows brief spikes around presidential elections but relative interest below 50%. Recent usage of the term comes from the dating app scene with users calculating flake rates based on planned dates that do not occur.

Examples

The Daily Beast (February 25, 2020): “‘We had a 75 percent flake rate,’ Leo said. ‘A good field plan can add on the margins but it can’t do it for you all by itself. You’ve got to be in the conversation, you’ve got to be on people’s minds.’”

Slate (September 6, 2012): “The metric of the day for Barack Obama’s field team is ‘flake rate’: the percentage of supporters who had registered to attend his open-air stadium speech but won’t show up for one of the replacement events the campaign is scrambling to arrange in its place after moving tonight’s convention session indoors.”

 

thrown under the bus

To be “thrown under the bus” is to be sacrificed by someone hoping to avoid blame themselves, often 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.”

chum

“Chum” is 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. The distribution of chum is organized by a candidate’s advance man.

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 “push card” is 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

Two politicians are “strange bedfellows” if they have made 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.”

stemwinder

A “stemwinder” is 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

“Political suicide” is 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.”

carpetbagger

A “carpetbagger” is a politician who runs for office or tries to appeal to a constituency in a geographic area where he or she has no roots or connection.

The term traces its roots back to the Civil War era, when it was first coined as a way of deriding someone from the northern states who migrated to the Confederacy to opportunistically benefit from the Reconstruction. Southerners who resented these interlopers started referring to them as “carpetbaggers,” a reference to the satchel – or cheap carpet bag – that held their meager belongings.

At the time, these so-called “carpetbaggers” headed south because the Confederate states needed significant capital investment, and there were financial opportunities that that didn’t exist in the north. Over time, this influx of northerners began to alter the political realities in the south, and the term “carpetbagger” became synonymous with an ill-intentioned foreigner who aligned with slaves, and had an aspirations to hold office in a region in which they were either not welcome or not part of the community.

Often confused with the term “scalawag,” the History Channel explains the difference. While a “carpetbagger” was an interloper who imposed their views on the south, a “scalawag” referred to someone already living in the south who was sympathetic to the northern cause, or specifically in this case, was anti-slavery.

Taken broadly, all northerners who went south in search of opportunity could be called carpetbaggers, but in reality the label didn’t apply to just anyone. To quote a 2014 Mother Jones article: “If you came South and joined up with the Democrats, you were a gentleman, not a carpetbagger.” Hence, it was a mostly partisan label, hurled by Democrats at Republicans.

Famous Restoration carpetbaggers included Adelbert Ames, Hiram Revels, Albion W. Tourgee, and Daniel Henry Chamberlain.

In more modern times, satchels made of carpet are no longer in vogue, and the term carpetbagger can refer to a member of any political party; nor is it limited to Republicans who migrated south. Modern carpetbaggers are sometimes accused of “district shopping.”

One of the most noted examples of modern carpetbagging occurred in 1964, when Bobby Kennedy sought the New York Senate seat. As noted by American Heritage: “…For controversy, comedy, and sheer audacity, no act of carpetbagging is likely to measure up any time soon to what happened when Robert F. Kennedy invaded the Empire State in 1964.” Of course, Kennedy ultimately appealed to New York voters, and he won the seat he sought.

High profile carpetbaggers abound. In 2014, when Republican Scott Brown from Massachusetts decided to run for office in New Hampshire, instead of eschewing the charge, he embraced it. As reported in the Washington Post, Brown said “Do I have the best credentials? Probably not. ‘Cause, you know, whatever.”

In 1999, when Hillary Cilnton ran for the New York Senate seat vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, charges of carpetbagging accompanied her bid, but were mostly shrugged off by voters. Hillary went on to win to election by 12 points.

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