Sandbagging is deceptive behavior intended to lower someone’s expectations so that they can be taken by surprise later.

Typically, sandbagging involves lulling someone into a false sense of security and then taking advantage of them. It’s an act of psychological manipulation. Imagine a pool shark, for example, who lets their target win a few rounds of pool before they up the ante and suddenly start winning.

Originally, of course, “sandbagging” simply meant to furnish with sandbags. The word took on its modern meaning of pretending weakness in the 1970s. Etymologists believe that the modern meaning comes from poker, where a “sandbagger” is someone who holds back from raising because they want to keep their opponents in the game for longer. There is also an older meaning of the word “sandbagger,” to mean a bully who uses a sandbag as a weapon.

After the 2020 Iowa caucus, some people on the left claimed that the Democratic party leadership had “sandbagged” Bernie Sanders. Exit polls appeared to put Sanders neck and neck with Pete Buttigieg, and both candidates declared victory in the state. Sanders supporters, including Michael Moore, for example, argued that DNC chair Tom Perez called for a recount in the state precisely to avoid a Sanders victory.

Michael Moore told reporters, “Bernie was going to have that press conference explaining why he won Iowa, and they [Perez and the DNC leadership] did that [call for recanvassing] to sandbag him.”

Sanders supporters made similar accusations against the DNC in 2016. So did members of the media. In 2016, the New York Post reported that “Democratic party bigwigs enlisted prominent media outlets to slant coverage to boost Hillary Clinton and sandbag Bernie Sanders, according to some of the 19,000 emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee’s servers and posted to Wikileaks.”

Journalists are sometimes accused of sandbagging too. In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine charged that the New York Times had sandbagged Bernie Sanders. The Rolling Stone claimed that the New York Times had initially planned an article explaining Bernie Sanders’ legislative approach but had revamped the article to criticize Sanders’ campaign.

“Sandbag” can be sometimes thrown around without a lot of precision. In some cases, the word is used interchangeably with the term “ambush.” Reporters are sometimes accused of sandbagging politicians when they confront them with unwelcome questions, for example. In other cases, “sandbag” is used simply to mean “harm.” Prospect magazine, for example, accused President Trump of trying to “sandbag” the American economy by launching a trade war with Europe.

However, sandbagging is different than obstructionism.

And sometimes, a sandbag is just a sandbag. In 2016, a group of activists wanted to protest against the planned wall between the US and Mexico. The group, mostly designers, launched a campaign called “Wall in Trump.” The idea was to collect sandbags and build a 200-foot wall in front of one of Donald Trump’s skyscrapers. (Trump, a presidential candidate at the time, had angered the group with his plans to build a border wall.) The designers said they wanted their sandbag wall to be “just big enough to retain this guy’s ego.”

smoking gun

In politics, the term “smoking gun” refers to a piece of evidence that definitively proves a crime or wrongdoing by an official.

The term originated from the idea that finding a gun that’s still smoldering on a murder suspect would almost certainly prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, being just one step away from catching the suspect doing the action itself.

The most famous example of a piece of “smoking gun” evidence in the history of politics is the Nixon “Smoking Gun” tape, which was a recording of Nixon speaking with Chief of Staff H.R. Halderman in the Oval Office on June 23, 1972. The existence of this “smoking gun” recording directly led to the resignation of Nixon.

Nixon released the tape several weeks after it was recorded. On the tape you can hear three conversations Nixon had with Halderman soon after the infamous Watergate break-in. On the tape, Nixon admits to ordering a cover-up and encouraging the FBI to abandon its investigation.

The Nixon “smoking gun tape” had enormous consequences for the country and the presidency, as described in a Washington Post article commemorating the 40th anniversary of its release:

Yet the smoking-gun tape is still important because of what it tells us about the presidency in general. Because the bottom line of the White House order to ‘turn off’ the FBI’s investigation was that, for the most part, it didn’t work.

Since the Nixon tape and resignation, the term “smoking gun” has been used in the context of other political scandals.

Today, the term is used often to describe evidence in a scandal that could potentially provide irrefutable proof. The New Republic talks about why it is not always necessary:

That said, there may not turn out to be a “smoking gun”… If this or the next Congress follows precedent and reads history correctly, that won’t matter. In the case of Richard Nixon, the House Judiciary Committee had already voted to impeach him on three Articles of Impeachment before a recording emerged of Nixon telling an aide to order Pentagon officials to call the FBI to urge it to call off their investigation of Watergate.

During the investigation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails and her server, Republicans searching for definitive proof of wrongdoing, or a “smoking gun,” either found it or didn’t find it, depending on what side of the aisle you were on.

More recently, during the impeachment of Donald Trump, many referred to the transcript of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president as a “smoking gun,” as outlined in the fall of 2019 by publications like Mother Jones or in this Roll Call article: “We now have the smoking-gun summary, the most incriminating White House document since Watergate. Even with ellipses and maybe redactions for national security reasons, the reconstruction of Donald Trump’s July 25 conversation with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is chilling in its specificity.”

Others would disagree, and of course in the case of Trump, the “smoking gun” outlined in the Roll Call article would not lead to his removal from office.

In 1997, a website called The Smoking Gun was launched to expose wrongdoing by officials and people in the public eye. They authenticate their reporting by “using material obtained from government and law enforcement sources, via Freedom of Information requests, and from court files nationwide.” One of the most famous cases of wrongdoing uncovered by The Smoking Gun was the fabrication of author James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces.


A form of underground press commonly available in eastern European countries with state-owned media sources. Samizdat typically is a grassroots way to distribute censored content to citizens who otherwise would not have access to this material.  It can take many forms; books, magazines, newspapers, or other types of censored media such as film and photography are commonly reproduced.

Consumers of samizdat historically have been educated citizens, and sometimes those with great political or social influence.  Samizdat has been disguised with book covers or alternative, accepted literary disguises.

Other forms can include banned religious texts or artwork that are not seen acceptable for a nation’s society.


A form of peaceful protest that involves sitting down and occupying space, often preventing access to a business or public space.

Sit-ins are a common form of protest in the US, and have been around since the late 1930s. During the Civil Rights Movement, sit-ins were one of the main ways to protest segregation in restaurants, parks, universities, and other places.

Sit-ins are still considered an effective form of peaceful protest for their visibility and peaceful tactics.

History: “The Greensboro sit-in was a civil rights protest that started in 1960, when young African-American students staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and refused to leave after being denied service. The sit-in movement soon spread to college towns throughout the South. Though many of the protesters were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace, their actions made an immediate and lasting impact, forcing Woolworth’s and other establishments to change their segregationist policies.”


A “scalawag” is a pejorative term for a white southerner who supported Reconstruction efforts in the south in the late 1800s. They are often associated with carpetbaggers, who were their northern counterparts.

The term was used by southern Democrats who were not in favor of Reconstruction policies. The term originally was used to refer to a useless farm animal, so being called a scalawag was equal to being called a useless person. They were viewed as even lower than carpetbaggers, because they were seen as traitors to the culture they grew up in.

A scalawag could have supported Reconstruction for many reasons. Some believed in giving rights to Black people. Others were poor and saw the advantages of added labor to revitalize the economy. Others were just Republicans who supported the sought to fix the reputation of the South. However, the connotation of the word implies that scalawags only supported the policy for personal gain.

History: “Scalawags had diverse backgrounds and motives, but all of them shared the belief that they could achieve greater advancement in a Republican South than they could by opposing Reconstruction. Taken together, scalawags made up roughly 20 percent of the white electorate and wielded a considerable influence. Many also had political experience from before the war, either as members of Congress or as judges or local officials.”

send them a message

To “send them a message” is a call to action from a politician telling supporters to use their political capital to voice their opinion.

This can be performed in many ways. A protest can be sending a message, because it shows large support for or against an issue. The same goes for political donations. The most typical call for a message to be sent is through voting. A politician may call on the people to “send them a message” to America by voting for them, and showing that a majority of people support a certain policy.


In politics, the term “sharp-elbowed” refers to being aggressive and assertive when it comes to pursuing a legislative agenda or pushing one’s point of view.

The phrase is traditionally intended to describe a positive attribute in a politician, suggesting that having “sharp elbows” is the opposite of being a legislative pushover or being too quick to compromise. In 1984, renowned linguist William Safire noted in the New York Times: “a change of connotation is taking place in the political use of the word. Not long ago, to have sharp elbows was not considered a compliment, as was apparent in the calumniation of Mr. Strauss. Today, a politician without elbows is as lost as a politician without principles. The display of elbows is evidence of necessary macho.”

In the same article, Safire noted an early use of the metaphor: ‘”’No man lives without jostling and being jostled,’’ wrote Thomas Carlyle in 1838. ‘’In all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offense.’”

As described by famed political operative James Carville: “You have to have sharp elbows if you want to change something.”

Over the years, many politicians have been described as having “sharp elbows”, including Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Andrew Cuomo, and Nancy Pelosi.

While the term is most often use to refer to legislators or politicians running for office, it can be used to describe an event as well, as when the Los Angeles Times called the 2015 GOP debate “sharp-elbowed.”

In 2010, an ABA Journal article reported on a trove of 11,000 emails about Supreme Court justice Elana Kagan, which revealed her to be a “sharp-elbowed and sometimes salty-tongued lawyer.”

And in 2015, the Economist used the term to refer to the wealthy in Britain, saying: “With their sharp elbows, the argument goes, the wealthy jostle others out of the way in the queue for doctors’ appointments, school places and other scarce public services.”

More recently, some have started to decry the sharp-elbowed nature of politics. From a 2020 article in the Wall Street Journal: “…in today’s highly polarized political environment, replete with the sharp-elbowed tactics of Washington infighting, much of [Martin Luther] King’s work has apparently been forgotten.”


A short and catchy phrase used to promote a candidate or idea. Slogans attempt to be memorable so that people remember the person behind them more easily.

Examples of slogans used for candidates are: I Like Ike (Eisenhower); Make America Great Again (Reagan and Trump); and Yes We Can (Obama). Slogans used for ideas include: Better Dead than Red (anti-Communist); Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men (19th century GOP); and Me Too/Time’s Up (sexual assault awareness)


To use false information and accusations to harm the reputation of another person.

A smear campaign is repeated uses of this to try to destroy another person’s reputation, typically to make them lose an election.

Psychology Today says that smear tactics work: “Assuming that acceptance of these slurs is related to voting choice, this suggests that in some cases, political slandering works. And not only that, it works on the group that is perhaps most important in swinging an election: politically undecided individuals. We may report hating these slanderous statements. But, it appears that they might make up our minds for us when we haven’t already.”

separate but equal

The infamous justification for the decision in Plessy v Ferguson, the case that formally legalized segregation. The justification behind the decision was that segregation was Constitutional as long as both black and white Americans had equal protection under the law.

Of course, the idea of ‘separate but equal’ was not followed at all, and segregation led to a huge disparity in access to nearly every aspect of life for many Black Americans. The 1956 Brown v Board of Education case would overturn the separate but equal doctrine, saying that separate could not possibly be equal.

Time: “The case reached the Supreme Court in 1896, and the court ruled that Louisiana’s law, calling for ‘equal but separate’ facilities on trains, was constitutional. The majority opinion held that Negroes were equal to whites ‘civilly and politically,’ but not ‘socially.’

In 1954, with Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court finally declared what Americans could long have seen with their own eyes: that which was kept separate was inherently unequal. “Even if physical facilities are equal, said the court,there are intangible factors which prevent ‘separate’ from being ‘equal,’””


In politics, “slow walk” is a term used to describe an effort to prevent legislation or a political process from moving forward by intentionally slowing it down to a crawl. Another similar term is “obstructionism.”

The origin of the term “slow walk” itself is believed to be from equestrianism, where horses would drag their feet instead of using their normal gait.

Journalist Ruth walker gives some insight into its political use in a 2017 Christian Science Monitor article, calling slow walking a “new(ish) term of art for resistance that moves at a stately pace, adding: “Winter isn’t always the best time of year to get regular exercise. But I keep seeing references to an activity apparently as well suited to the corridors of power in Washington as to the snow-slushy streets of Boston: the slow walk.”

While the term’s widespread use in politics is fairly recent, the actual act of “slowing down” legislation or other political actions has a long history in the halls of Congress.

In 1988, noted linguist William Safire interpreted the use the term “slow walk” in politics as possibly having Southern origins, more specifically from the early 1970s in Tennessee. In his column, he quotes a famed Tennessee Senator:“’People slow-walk things, you know, especially if you’ve got a cutoff date,’ said Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, complaining to reporters last summer about the obfuscation he had faced from the White House in his investigation of campaign finance. He repeated the verb more emphatically as his hearings drew to a close: ‘We have been slow-walked and deferred and had objections every step of the way.’’”

Safire adds a quote from Southerner Bill Clinton: ”I had a four-year term; they still only confirmed 35 judges — slow walk and everything. It’s like pulling teeth.”

By 2012, the term was more widely used, as noted in Time Magazine:  “House Speaker John Boehner has accused President Obama of “slow-walking” fiscal cliff negotiations, employing a metaphor used by generations of politicians before him.”

Some examples of more recent usage refer to Hillary Clinton’s announcement of a 2016 presidential run, the delicate negotiations with China over trade, and the passage of gun legislation in state governments.

In 2019, the hold on aid to Ukraine that led to Donald Trump’s eventual impeachment was even referred to as “slow walked” in this Politico article, a prescient reference only about a month before the controversy came to light.

Indeed, the eventual impeachment of Trump itself was even referred to as “slow-walked” in this 2019 Washington Post article.

Saturday Night Massacre

The Saturday Night Massacre refers to October 20, 1973, the Saturday night when then-President Richard Nixon gave the order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, leading to the resignation of his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General.

Nixon ordered the firing of Cox after Cox subpoenaed the secret White House tapes Nixon kept, which held key information in the case against him. Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox, who would not compromise with Nixon’s attempts to delay the process in any way. Richardson refused and instead resigned. When Deputy AG William Ruckelshaus was told to fire Cox, Ruckelshaus did the same. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork fired Cox, leading to outrage.

News coverage of the Massacre was harsh, and protests quickly gathered over what was seen as an abuse of power. Polls showed this was the first time a majority of Americans wanted Nixon impeached. Nixon would resign less than a year later.

The Nation provides a good graphic on the timeline of the event.

salami tactics

“Salami tactics” refers to a divide and conquer approach, which aims to split up the opposition. The expression evokes the idea of slicing up one’s opposition in the same way as one might slice up a salami.

The phrase was coined by the Hungarian communist leader Matyos Rakosi as a way to describe his technique of dividing and isolating opposition parties during the 1940s. The phrase was also used a few decades later, in Czechoslovakia, to describe the gradual process of chipping away at the reforms that had been introduced by Alexander Dubcek before the Russian invasion in 1968.

The phrase is strongly associated with Josef Stalin, who used salami tactics to divide the anti-communist opposition groups in order to realize his goal of creating more and more communist states near Russia. Some analysts believe that Stalin’s salami tactics were simply a re-purposing of Hitler’s “piecemeal” strategy of decimating his opposition so that he and his cohorts were left as the only viable option.

During World War II, Hitler used salami tactics to slowly but surely annex other countries. The German leader eliminated his opponents piece by piece (or slice by slice), working strategically and timing his operations with the utmost care. The slow, precise approach meant that nobody ever felt alarmed enough to take decisive action in response.

Salami tactics can be compared to the idea of a “frog in hot water,” which similarly imagines an attack that comes on very slowly and by degrees. The image is of a frog immersed in water – the water’s temperature is slowly, and almost imperceptibly increased until finally the frog is boiled to death. Because the attack came on so gradually, the frog never had the opportunity to defend itself or to flee.

Salami tactics can also be compared to the old saying, “if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.” The Nobel-prize winning economist Thomas Schelling argued, in his book Arms and Influence, that salami tactics are typical childish behavior:

“Salami tactics, we can be sure, were invented by a child […] Tell a child not to go in the water and he’ll sit on the bank and submerge his bare feet; he is not yet ‘in’ the water. Acquiesce, and he’ll stand up; no more of him is in the water than before. Think it over, and he’ll start wading, not going any deeper; take a moment to decide whether this is different and he’ll go a little deeper, arguing that since he goes back and forth it all averages out. Pretty soon we are calling to him not to swim put of sight, wondering whatever happened to all our discipline.”

In modern times, pundits on the left and right have accused various governments of using “salami tactics” against the opposition. On the left, some have accused the US government of using police power, facial recognition technology, and surveillance tactics to weaken and intimidate opposition groups. Taiwanese writers have sometimes accused the Chinese government of using salami tactics against Taiwan. Western writers have also criticized what they say are “salami tactics” being carried out by Beijing in the East China Sea.

silent majority

The term “silent majority” refers to a large block of voters that feel marginalized, silenced or underserved by the political system. It’s commonly assumed that, if they voted en masse, this “silent majority” would have an enormous ability to affect the outcome of any given election.

Used more broadly these days, the term “silent majority” once referred to all those who had passed on in human history. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan in 1902: “…great captains on both sides of our Civil War have long ago passed over to the silent majority, leaving the memory of their splendid courage.”

It was first used politically by Warren Harding in his campaign for president in 1919, but the term gained real traction in the 1960s, when it was used by Richard Nixon as a way of galvanizing voters that may otherwise have not voted due to their dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War and politics in general.

If a speech delivered to the nation in November 1969, Nixon evoked the term to appeal to a swath of voters that he felt supported him even if that wasn’t reflected in the polls or by the political intelligentsia. As described on its 50th anniversary, in 2019: “Fifty years ago Sunday night, President Richard M. Nixon sat in the Oval Office and delivered a nationally televised speech whose content is almost universally forgotten today, but, like so many major presidential addresses, is remembered for one phrase: ‘silent majority.’ As in: ‘And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of Americans — I ask for your support.’”

At the time, the silent majority was mostly associated with the white working class in America, and turned out to be a critical part of Nixon’s reelection, as described by Vox: “In 1972, Nixon’s silent majority, grounded firmly in the white working class, delivered a smashing victory for the GOP, dashing the hopes of George McGovern supporters that a new coalition of young white professionals and racial minorities could upend American politics.”

Used in the 50 years since Nixon to describe a bloc of voters whose attitudes are not perceived as popular or trendy, more recently it has referred to those who take umbrage with the rise of political correctness and the perceived elitism of the liberal left and political punditry.

From NPR: “Others said the silent majority is defined by fiscal conservatism, or disapproval of things like Planned Parenthood, or anger with government gridlock. Dan Fix of Mason City, Iowa, said the quintessential member of the silent majority would be Joe the Plumber, or in Iowa’s case, he pointed out, Joe the Farmer.”

These days, when debating who – or what – the “silent majority” is, racial overtones are hard to ignore. Historian Rick Perlstein: “To say majority is to say minority, and everyone knows who minorities are. They are people in America who are not white.”

Whatever bloc of voters it refers to, the term “silent majority” is still used by politicians as a way to appeal to voters who feel like they belong to a group of people who are forgotten, and are forever searching for a candidate that they feel speaks for their values.

shy voter

A “shy voter” is one who does not admit to supporting a certain candidate to pollsters, but still votes for that candidate in the election.

The term comes from the “Shy Tory Effect,” a phenomenon that found British conservatives greatly outperforming their poll numbers.

Shy voters seem to not make up a large percentage of the voting population, and have not been found to affect an election. However, the idea of the “shy Trump voter” was talked about in the 2016 election as a means to explain how Trump outperformed polls.

Harry Enten: “The ‘shy Trump’ theory relies on the notion of social desirability bias— the idea that people are reluctant to reveal unpopular opinions. So if the theory is right, we would have expected to see Trump outperform his polls the most in places where he is least popular — and where the stigma against admitting support for Trump would presumably be greatest… But actual election results indicate that the opposite happened: Trump outperformed his polls by the greatest margin in red states, where he was quite popular.”


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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”


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. …'”



A “snollygoster” is a political operative or candidate who uses cunning or ethically questionable behavior to achieve power.

The term snollygoster is traced back to 1846 by Merriam-Webster with a strong preference for the word among Southern politicians starting in the 1850s. Georgia legislator H.W.J. Ham is often credited with popularizing the term in the late 19th century. He used snollygoster in 1893 to describe fellow Georgians who had “an unquenchable thirst for office with neither the power to get it nor the ability to fill it.”

By the 20th century, there was a belief that snollygoster evolved from the mythical snallygaster. This creature was believed to roam Maryland in search of children to eat. Merriam-Webster dispelled this connection, however, noting that snallygaster was not found in publications until after snollygoster.

Google’s Ngram Viewer shows relatively low usage for the term in English publications from the late 19th century to the 1940s. A spike in usage occurred in the 1950s thanks to President Harry Truman’s application of snollygoster to his Republican opponents. He invoked the term in a 1952 speech in West Virginia to refer to politicians who use their religious background to gain political support.

Snollygoster remained a novelty to political observers through the early 20th century. Safire’s Political Dictionary revised between 1968 and 1993 included an entry for the term. Publisher William Safire used snollygoster in a 1980 article in The New York Times on the power of presidential words. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly used the term in his Word of the Day feature.

Merriam-Webster removed snollygoster from its Collegiate Dictionary in 2003 because it was considered an archaic term. The publication added the term again in 2017 due in part to O’Reilly’s invocation of the word in reference to Democratic politicians. The term has gained currency among those who want to show a deep knowledge of political history. WOSU, a public radio network in Ohio, has a weekly podcast called Snollygoster that covers politics in the Buckeye State. Snollygoster’s revival came from its unusual sound and the continued presence of figures who match the definition.


The Huffington Post (December 6, 2017): “Seriously, how much harder do we have to be hit on the head before we realize that this “snollygoster” destroys the essence of who we are as a people.”

Slinging Mud (2011): “Ham claimed to have first heard the word during an 1848 political debate. He defined a snollygoster as a ‘place-hunting demagogue’ or a ‘political hypocrite.’”

The New York Times (September 2, 1952): “President Truman revived an old American word today when he taunted the ‘Republican snollygosters.’”

sacred cow

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

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

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

soft power

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

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

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

Shermanesque statement

Shermanesque statement

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

stump speech

stump speech

A stump speech is a speech that a politician makes again and again as they travel to different places during a campaign.

The expression dates back to early American history, when candidates would travel through the countryside building support for their campaigns. Most of the time, there weren’t any formal stages where a politician could address a crowd, so candidates stood on tree stumps to give their speeches. Today, candidates still travel around the country delivering standardized speeches to win over voters.

A typical stump speech has a lot of distinctive elements, all woven together into an appealing whole. The speech sets out the candidate’s values and their overarching plans, as well as specific campaign promises and talking points. And of course, the speech also needs to forge an emotional connection between the candidate and the voters.

Stump speeches are not intended to be newsworthy or dramatic. Normally, a candidate repeats the same stump speech, word for word, at every one of his campaign stops. The speech might change slightly depending on the audience – for example, the candidate might add a few words to the speech to mention local politicians, or to refer to a local specialty. For the most part, though, candidates deliver the same stump speech at every campaign stop, giving the audience time at the end to ask questions.

In 2015, the FiveThirtyEight blog created two “perfect” stump speeches – one for Republicans, and one for Democrats. The speeches weren’t real, but they imagined what highly pandering possible speeches for each party would look like, based on the values reflected by the majority of voters from each party.

The Republican speech, as written by former Republican speech writer Barton Swaim, focused on the need for smaller government, reduced Federal spending, and free trade. The Democratic speech, written by Democratic speechmaker Jeff Nussbaum, talked about social inclusion, income inequality, and education.

Even in the age of social media, the old-fashioned stump speech continues to be important during a campaign. During the 2020 presidential campaign, most candidates continued to use standardized stump speeches to present their talking points and to reach out to voters. President Trump’s stump speech clocks at just over an hour and touches on issues like the economy, conservative values, and tax cuts.

Some candidates, though, seemed to be moving away from the classic stump speech. After all, stump speeches are also full of potential pitfalls, since they present opportunities for candidates to make gaffes or lose their audience’s attention. Joe Biden, the Democratic frontrunner for the presidential nomination, shortened his stump speech to just 15 minutes. And Senator Elizabeth Warren replaced her own stump speech with a town hall format.

The Atlantic once cited this speech by one Phil Davidson, the would-be GOP nominee for treasurer in Stark County, Ohio, as the worst stump speech in American history. The speech is striking because of Davidson’s highly emotive delivery, even when he is discussing non-controversial subjects like his own biography. At moments, Davidson seems enraged or on the verge of tears.

split ticket

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

straight ticket

Straight ticket voting allows voters to choose every candidate on a single party’s slate by making just one ballot mark.

Over the years, many states that once allowed straight ticket voting have abolished it. In 2020, only seven states will allow straight ticket voting in the presidential election. Those states are Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah.

There are a number of concerns about straight ticket voting. Some pundits have argued that, while straight ticket voting makes this easy for uninformed voters, it makes it easier for inexperienced candidates to win office. Political parties have little incentive to vet the candidates at the bottom of the ticket, the argument goes, which means that less qualified politicians can be swept into office along with the rest of their party.

Other critics of straight ticket voting say that the practice unfairly benefits the two major political parties. It’s harder for third party candidates to get a fair chance in states which allow straight ticket voting, some say.

Some people also have expressed concern that the ballots are confusing and that in states which allow straight voting, voters may not actually cast a ballot for president. That’s because in certain states, straight ticket voters still have to make a separate mark to indicate their choice for president – something which many voters don’t realize.

Informally, “straight ticket voting” is often used to describe the practice of voting for every candidate from a single party, even in states where there is no specific straight ticket ballot option.

The opposite of straight ticket voting is “split ticket voting.” A voter who votes a split ticket chooses candidates based on their individual merit, from several political parties. Some analysts argue that split ticket voters are seen as more intelligent and discerning than straight ticket voters.

Still, straight ticket voting has been on the rise in recent years, perhaps in line with the increasingly polarized electorate. In 2016, the Washington Post notes, the highest percentage of straight-ticket voting in over a century took place. 100 percent of states that held Senate elections voted for the same party for Senate as for president.

Split ticket voting has been on the decline for decades. Studies have shown that voters are identifying candidates, even in local and municipal races, with the party leadership. One study, carried out by Saint Louis University, looked at how voters select their state lawmakers. It turned out that most voters weren’t looking at the lawmakers’ platforms or their voting records. Instead, they were basing their vote on what they thought of the US president.

So during the Obama administration, voters who were unhappy with the president voted Republican in local elections. During the Trump administration, voters who are unhappy with the president vote Democrat in local elections.

In 2016, straight ticket voting appeared to reach a peak. Each state that selected a Republican senator went on to vote for Donald Trump. At the same time, each state that had voted for a Democratic senator also voted for Hillary Clinton.


“Swiftboating” is an untrue or unfair political attack or smear campaign. It’s similar in meaning to mudslinging.

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

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

smoke-filled room

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

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

sine die

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