The Official Election-Watcher's Glossary

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Confused by the electoral coverage? This A-to-Z of buzz-words and commonly used political terms will help you make sense of what is going on, as well as highlighting the key issues.



Absentee voting rules exist to allow voters who cannot come to polling places a means to cast a ballot. Reasons for absentee voting include residency abroad, illness, travel and military service. In presidential elections, absentee voting is governed by The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. In other elections, the rules vary from state to state. (In Oregon, all elections are conducted by mail, but voters have the option of voting in person at county polling stations.) Absentee ballots played an important part in George Bush's controversial victory over Al Gore in 2000. In Florida, focal point of the controversy, Gore received 202 more votes than Bush on election day, but Bush received 537 more than Gore in the final tally. It has been claimed - in a New York Times investigation - that 680 overseas ballots were illegally counted. Even if this were not true, overseas voters can clearly play a crucial role in tightly contested states.



A preliminary vote taken within a party early in the electoral process. Voters are not bound by the preference they express and can later choose to vote for someone else.


The American term for the ring-road surrounding major cities. In political writing the Beltway refers to the ring-road surrounding Washington DC; hence "a Beltway issue" is something of great concern to the political elite but of little interest to the general public. Politicians said to have a "beltway mentality" are seen as out of touch with ordinary voters.


The collective term for the first 10 amendments of the US Constitution which deal with the fundamental rights of individual citizens. These amendments limit the powers of the federal and state government. They guarantee: the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and religion; the right to bear arms; the freedom to petition; the rights to be free of unreasonable search, of cruel and unusual punishment and the right of an individual not to incriminate themselves in court. The Bill of Rights also restricts Congress's power. Acts of Congress or laws deemed by the US Supreme Court to be in conflict with these rights can be declared void. See Buckley v Valeo.


A state where most voters usually support the Democrats. See Red state.

Buckley v Valeo

The name of the 1976 legal test case that overruled the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act which had placed mandatory limits on spending in all federal elections and limited the amount candidates themselves could spend. Buckley v Valeo declared that such restrictions violated individuals' rights to freedom of expression. Candidates, it ruled, can give unlimited amounts of money to their own campaigns, since this is a form of free speech guaranteed under the constitution. It also allows individuals, corporations or lobby groups to spend money on adverts campaigning against a particular candidate so long as they do not consult that candidate's rivals before doing so. See also McCain-Feingold Law.


The butterfly ballot is a punch-card ballot. It has a column of holes down the centre with the names of candidates printed on either side. Voters must punch the hole that corresponds to the candidate they prefer. The butterfly ballot caused huge controversy in the 2000 presidential election. Democrat voters mounted a legal challenge against the election result, arguing that the poor design of the ballot led to thousands of people who meant to vote for Democrat Al Gore mistakenly voting for the right-winger Pat Buchanan. Mr Gore's name was the second name on the left of the ballot paper, but voters had to punch the third hole to vote for him. Many spoiled their ballot paper as they tried to correct their mistake. By contrast the name of George Bush was top of the ballot and corresponded to the top hole. The designer of the butterfly ballot claimed the design made it easier for elderly voters to use but others disagreed.



The Capitol, whose white marble dome dominates the Washington skyline, is the home of America’s Congress - its two houses of parliament, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Members of the Senate are known as Senators and members of the House of Representatives as Congressmen or Congresswomen. The building also houses various committee and hearing rooms and an art gallery. The steps of the Capitol are the traditional stage for the formal inauguration of the new president in the January following the election (20 January in 2009).


Literally, caucus means just "a meeting". But the phrase has come to have several uses in American politics. Caucuses are the means by which the two main parties - Republican and Democrat - decide their candidate for president. Local party activists meet at the precinct level and select, in an open forum, delegates to county meetings. County meetings then select delegates. State meetings then select delegates to the party's national convention. This layered system aims to open political participation to as many people as possible, and to create structures which will attract new recruits into party politics. In presidential election years the major political parties of every state conduct either caucuses or primaries (see Primary). By tradition, the rural mid-western state of Iowa has the first set of caucuses in the nation. (Next comes the first primary in New Hampshire). This gives the people of Iowa a big impact on the race, even though it is a small state.

"Caucus" is also used to mean a particular section of the electorate thought to constitute a distinct lobby group, such as "the black caucus" or "the Hispanic caucus".


A chad is the tiny piece of paper punched out of a ballot by the machine used in casting votes. They became a household word in the 2000 presidential election because some machines in Florida left chads partially attached (hanging chads) or merely indented the paper (dimpled chads or pregnant chads) making the results difficult to read or interpret. The result of the whole election turned on the result in Florida. Following that fiasco, the machines that produce chads now play a greatly reduced role in US elections. See Electronic voting.


When one presidential candidate is the sitting president ("the incumbent"), the opponent is the challenger. See also Incumbent.


Congress is the US law-making parliament. Like Britain it has two houses - the 435-member House of Representatives and 100-member Senate. Each has different powers, though legislation cannot be enacted without the consent of both chambers. The Senate has to approve and ratify international treaties signed by the President and his (or her) appointment of ministers, ambassadors and Supreme Court judges. Bills for increasing or decreasing taxes must originate in the House of Representatives. Together, both houses can, by a two-thirds majority in both houses, overturn a presidential veto (see veto).

Members of the House of Representatives (Congressmen or Congresswomen) are elected every two years for a term which begins in odd-numbered years. The number of Congressmen in each state varies according to its population. Each state has two Senators, regardless of population. They serve staggered six-year terms, which means that every two years one-third of the Senate is elected. In years of presidential elections, these elections are held on the same day as the election for president.


A closed primary (see Primary and Open primary) is one in which only registered members of that party may vote in the selection of that part’s candidate to be president. Most state primaries are closed.


A right-wing politician. In the United States, conservatives usually emphasise free-market economic principles and often prefer state and local governmental power to federal power. Of the two major parties, the Republicans are generally considered more conservative; but there are conservatives and liberals in both parties.


The process whereby a nominee’s popularity tends to increase in the immediate aftermath of the convention at which they were selected. See National convention.



According to the US state department, a debate is "a structured discussion involving two or more opposing sides of an issue". Televised debates between candidates first became a feature of the presidential election in 1960, when John F Kennedy outshone Richard Nixon. Recently, debates between candidates on television, on radio and, increasingly, on the internet - have become common at all stages of the electoral process. The confrontation between two Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, has already been a noteworthy feature of the 2008 campaign.


An official representative selected by members of his or her party to a national or state political convention. They are usually bound to vote in accordance with the decisions of their party primaries or caucuses. In the Democratic Party there are 4,049 delegate votes up for grabs; a would-be presidential candidate needs the votes of 2,025 in order to win the party's nomination. The Republicans have 2,345 delegate votes, and the "magic number" that a presidential hopeful needs is 1,191. See also: Superdelegates.


One of the two current major political parties. Traditionally the Democrats have found their support among less affluent voters as well as among the educated liberal elite. It also, traditionally, has supported a more activist role for the federal government in the economic and social sectors. It is generally considered less conservative than the Republican Party. The colour blue is usually used to represent Democrat states on maps. The party symbol is the donkey.


A situation that often arises in US politics, when the president belongs to one political party and at least one chamber of Congress (either the Senate or the House of Representatives) is controlled by the other party. Divided governments can also exist at the state level, with one party controlling the governorship and another controlling the state legislature. In general, a divided government will be more inclined towards political compromise.


When a politician makes a statement that sounds innocuous to most listeners but contains a coded (usually damaging) message that can be understood by a particular section of the electorate.


No-one knows why the donkey has become the established symbol for the Democratic Party. Its popularisation may stem, like that of the Republican elephant, from political cartoons of the 19th century satirist Thomas Nast, although the symbol was used during Andrew Jackson's campaign for the presidency in 1828. The donkey has never been officially adopted as the party symbol.



Established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the Election Assistance Commission serves primarily as a national clearinghouse and resource for information on elections. It also reviews federal election administration and procedures.


The core voters for any politician, loyal whichever way the political winds of the day are blowing, is known as that politician's electoral base - in contrast with swing voters (see Swing voters). An electoral base may depend upon geography, religion, ethnicity, gender, ideology or military service. Another term for "electoral base" is "the vote bank".


A group of 538 electors, chosen from the various states, who meet in January to elect the next president of the United States. The electoral college system is mandated by the U.S. Constitution. The electors almost invariably cast their votes in line with the votes polled in the election in their state.


Voting technology, a prominent feature of the post-election battle in Florida in 2000, remains a big mess. The United States has no centralised electoral commission, so rules and standards are determined, at best, state by state and, more commonly, county by county. The punch-card machines that generated all the bad publicity about pregnant, hanging and dimpled chads in the Florida debacle and made accurate recounts almost impossible are now largely obsolete.

In many places, however, they were replaced with something worse - expensive, paperless, electronic touch-screen machines so poorly programmed and so prone to error, viruses, hacking and software manipulation that they have been condemned by every respectable computer scientist or government agency that has looked at them. Because the touch-screens - or Direct Recording Electronic machines - have no inbuilt paper trail, recounts are impossible unless a separate printer is attached. Those printers, introduced in several states under pressure from voting rights activists, have also proved to be highly problematic.

After an orgy of spending - the federal government alone set aside close to $4bn, and many counties and states matched or exceeded those funds - many election officials are now suffering a serious case of buyers’ remorse.

The most prevalent system in 2008 is also, in theory, the best: a system of handmarked paper ballots that are then optically scanned and tabulated by computer. These systems, though, can only be as good as the willingness of county officials to audit them. Some states, such as California, mandate a random sample recount by hand to make sure the totals are accurate. Many other places do not. New Hampshire only conducted a recount of its primary - featuring an upset victory for Hillary Clinton - after two of the lesser candidates requested one.

The reliability of election results comes down, as it always has, to the political culture of the place in question. A clean political state will deliver a clean result, but a corrupted environment - whether at county or state level - still has plenty of room for foul play.


The symbol of the Republican Party (see Donkey). More popular with the Republicans than the donkey is with the Democrats.



The FECA is the 1971 law (amended in 1974, 1976 and 1979) that governs the financing of federal elections. It requires candidates and political committees to disclose both the sources of their funding and how they spend it. It also regulates the contributions received and expenditures made during federal election campaigns, and the public funding of presidential elections.


An independent regulatory agency created in 1975 to enforce laws covering campaigns for the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Presidency and the Vice-Presidency. It places strict reporting requirements on all candidates and campaign committees. It also polices any individuals and groups who spend money with the intention of influencing the elections.

The FEC also administers the public funds available to candidates. The six members of the commission are appointed by the President, but, by law, no more than three commissioners can be members of the same political party. During a campaign, the Commission collects and publishes regular updates on the sources of finance for candidates.


The controversial practice of scheduling state party caucuses and state primary elections to earlier and earlier dates, in the hope of lending decisive momentum to the candidate that state chooses and thus having a disproportionate influence on a party's nomination. In 2008, the Democratic National Committee stripped Michigan and Florida of all their delegates to the national convention because they moved their primaries ahead of Super Tuesday without permission. See also: Rear-loading.


The 2008 election is expected to be the most expensive ever, with total expenditure passing $1bn for the first time. Two campaigns, for Clinton and Obama, had already raised $100m each by mid-January. Candidates who accept federal funding (see Matching funds) are bound by an overall spending limit of $50m. Several pieces of legislation regulate the ways in which money is raised: see Buckley v Valeo; Federal Election Campaign Act; Federal Election Commission; Hard money; Soft money; McCain-Feingold Law.



Towards the end of an election campaign, particularly on voting day, the parties focus their resources on getting their electoral base (see Electoral base) out to the polls. GOTV operations include TV and radio advertisements and banks of telephone volunteers who call supporters’ homes reminding them to vote. As in UK elections, trucks with amplified speakers tour neighbourhoods of likely supporters and volunteer drivers offer to take elderly or disabled supporters to polling stations. They also put "pollwatchers" at the stations to ensure that their rivals do not break any laws on the distribution of campaign materials such as badges, balloons, brochures and banners.


Stands for Grand Old Party, an old-style nickname for the Republican Party. Still used in newspaper headlines and occasionally by television commentators (who pronounce it "gee-oh-pee" rather than "gop").


Hard money

Money contributed by an individual directly to a particular campaign. This is limited under the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act to $1,000 per donor per candidate per presidential or congressional election. The first $250 donated to a candidate by an individual can be matched dollar-for-dollar from federal matching funds. Limits on state elections vary according to state laws. See also Soft money; Matching funds; McCain-Feingold Law.

Hatch Act

Law restricting political activity by employees of the executive branch of the US federal government or the District of Columbia government, and state and local employees who work in connection with federally funded programmes. The law allows these employees to contribute to a candidate's campaign but prevents them from using official authority to influence an election. This includes soliciting or receiving political contributions and engaging in political activity while on duty. The employees are also prohibited from running in partisan elections, although they are allowed to run for office in non-partisan elections, such as school board elections.


HAVA was passed in 2002 to address voting problems encountered in the 2000 presidential election. The act encourages state and local governments to eliminate punch-card and lever voting machines. Since 2003, states have received $2.9bn under HAVA to improve their election processes. The law also established the Election Assistance Commission. See Electronic voting.


The House of Representatives is the larger of the two houses of Congress. The 435 members of the House - generally known as Congressmen and Congresswomen - serve two-year terms, in contrast to the six-year term of senators. Each congressman represents around half a million citizens in a constituency known as a "district". The number of districts in each state varies according to the population at the last census. The presiding member, the Speaker of the House, is elected by a majority vote of the members of the House at the beginning of each new Congress.



When the sitting president or vice-president stands for election, he or she is described as the incumbent. Incumbents have a good chance of winning, statistically. This is the first election since 1952 in which neither the incumbent president nor the incumbent vice president has been running (and the first since 1928 in which neither has sought his party’s nomination). See Challenger.


A voter who does not declare affiliation with the Republicans or Democrats (or other political party) when registering to vote. Campaign managers tend to focus their attention on winning over independents on the assumption that those who registered for a particular party will vote for that party’s candidate. Around a third of all voters are independents nationwide, though some key states have a higher proportion of independent voters than others. One of these is New Hampshire, which therefore has the reputation of producing unexpected results during its primary.

"Independent" is also used to describe a candidate for office who is running on a personal platform rather than party affiliation. Recent independents included the Texan businessman Ross Perot in 1992 and the consumer activist Ralph Nader in 2004. The only independent ever elected was George Washington, America’s first president who was not formally affiliated with any party during his two terms. In the 2008 election, it seems possible at the time of going to press that the Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, may yet stand as an independent. So may the conservative libertarian Republican congressman Ron Paul, while Ralph Nader has hinted he might run again.



See Mid-term elections.


Politicians who are ideologically left-of-centre tend to be called liberals (though in economics liberal can mean right-wing). Political liberals tend to want the federal and state governments to intervene more to regulate economic and social matters. Civil liberties, and minority rights, are touchstone issues since traditionally, the bases of liberal support have been among minorities, urban voters, labour unions and academics. The Democrats are generally more liberal than Republicans, though those lines have blurred in recent years.



Formally titled the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, this law is generally known by the names of its two main Senate sponsors: John McCain, a Republican, and Russell Feingold, a Democrat, who sought to prevent "soft money" from being used to influence candidates running for federal office by closing various legislative loopholes. See Hard money, Soft money.


Money from public resources supplied to campaign funds. This matches donations made by individual contributors dollar-for-dollar up to a maximum of $250 per donation. It is administered by the Federal Election Commission. The money comes from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which includes proceeds from the voluntary check-off of $3 per person from income tax returns of eligible taxpayers (see Taxpayer check-off system). Candidates are not obliged to take matching funds, but if they do so they must limit their overall spending in the presidential primary period to around $40m (and in the campaign as a whole to $50m). At the time of going to press, John Edwards was the only major candidate to have accepted matching funds in the current campaign. To qualify for funds, candidates need to show they are capable of raising at least $100,000 in individual donations, including at least $5,000 in each of 20 states. Candidates who fail to receive at least 10 per cent of the vote in two successive primary elections lose their eligibility for continued payments, unless they receive 20 per cent of the vote in a later primary. Those who decline matching funds can spend whatever they like, though in theory they are not allowed to take more than the $1,000 limit from any individual.

The FEC pays out money in three phases: matching funds during the primaries, a block grant at the national conventions, and a further block grant during the actual election campaign. The two major parties – the Democrats and the Republicans – are automatically entitled to a public grant for their conventions; minor parties which received more than 5 per cent of the vote in the preceding election are entitled to a smaller subsidy. New parties are not eligible.


Elections to Congress which take place two years after each presidential election and two years before the incumbent president’s term expires. Each mid-term election selects one-third of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate and all 435 members of the House of Representatives, as well as many state and local officials. If they go against a president he may be described as a "lame duck president": Congress will be able to block many of his political options, and much of his effective political power will have evaporated.



Every four years delegates from every US state gather in each party to choose a candidate to stand for president. Delegates vote largely in accord with the votes cast in the primaries or caucuses in their states. But there are circumstances in which deals can be brokered between factions in the party. A deeply divided Democrat Party in 1924 had to hold as many as 103 ballots to decide finally on its presidential candidate. Nowadays the convention is essentially a platform for the prospective candidate to announce who he or she has chosen as running-mate and present to the party faithful the person they hope will be the next vice-president of the United States.


US politics are notorious for the use of negative advertising and other campaigning that tries to discredit rival candidates. Prominent victims include George W Bush (attacked for his military record), John Kerry (likewise), Michael Dukakis (attacked on behalf of George Bush Sr for letting a murderer out of jail to "terrorise innocent people"). Following a 1976 test case (see Buckley v Valeo), individuals, corporations and groups have been guaranteed the right to spend money on advertisements campaigning against particular candidates - but only if they do not consult that candidate’s rivals before doing so.


Anyone selected by others for election to office. Nominees for the presidency may be selected in primary elections or caucuses; or, in some cases, be selected unopposed.



An open primary is one in which all registered voters in the state may vote, regardless of whether or not they are registered as belonging to the political party in question. This kind of primary is also known as a "cross-over" primary, since voters registered with other parties, and floating voters, may also vote. Thus a Democrat may choose not to vote in the Democrat primary, if the voter is convinced his preferred candidate is a cert or a no-hoper in that state; the voter may then decide to try to influence the choice of opposition candidate. Only a few primaries are open. See Closed Primary; Primary.


No political decision of any consequence is now taken in the United States without the pollsters being consulted. The first opinion poll in a presidential election was conducted in 1824 and since then polling has grown into a multi-million dollar industry. (George Gallup’s big break came when he correctly called the 1936 election.) Polls in the 2008 campaign have so far shown voters are more inclined to the Democrats than to the Republicans.



A catch-all term covering attempts to convey the campaign message to undecided voters through a wide variety of media: television, radio and print advertising, direct-mail, door-to-door and street-corner campaigning, personal appearances by candidates and attempts to secure favourable coverage on the news.


What in the UK would be called the party manifesto: a political party's formal written statement of its principles and goals – usually put together by candidates as they seek the nomination and then endorsed by the party at the national convention.


A plurality is what happens when a candidate receives more votes than any opponent but does not win a majority of the total vote. For example, if one candidate receives 30 per cent of the votes, a second candidate also receives 30 per cent and a third receives 40 per cent, the third candidate could win the election by a plurality of the votes. Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton both received only a plurality of the popular vote in a competitive three-way election contest.


PACs are pressure groups not related directly to any political party, but sometimes affiliated with corporations, trades unions or other organisations. They monitor candidates’ voting records and question candidates on their beliefs on issues of interest to their membership. They can give money to candidates and engage in other election-related activities in order to promote specific legislative agendas.

Because federal law limits the donations that individuals, businesses or unions can give to political candidates, PACs have become a significant conduit for funnelling large funds into the political process and influencing elections. In 1976, there were 608 PACs; in 2006, there were about 4,600. In the 1996 election they contributed $32.4m to the parties and $200.9m to candidates for Congress. PACs are a growing force in US politics.


A local election in which candidates from one of the two major political parties compete to be their party’s nominee for presidential office. See Open primary; Closed primary.


A controversial opinion polling technique in which large numbers of people are asked about a specific issue, ostensibly for the purpose of measuring opinion but in fact with the intention of influencing it. Those purporting to be independent pollsters are in fact campaign workers who talk up their own candidate and denigrate opponents.

Push polling was extensively used by Republicans in the 2000 presidential campaign; George W Bush and John McCain each accused the other of such underhand campaign tactics. Some commentators have suggested that the technique undermines confidence in the electoral system and can deter voters from turning out on polling day.



Demographers detected that a large number of Democrats switched to vote for the Republican president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The term is sometimes used to cover all floating voters with a predisposition to the Democratic party.


The term "realignment" is used to describe one of those historic movements of public opinion and voter concerns that occasionally occur, undermining the traditional base of support for one party. This may involve a shift between the two major political parties, or to a third party or independent candidate. Realignment may be caused by attitudes to a major issue (eg, slavery in the 19th century), the way a national crisis is handled (eg, the Great Depression after 1929) or substantial changes in the demographic make-up of the population. The Republican party emerged from a major party realignment which saw the demise of the Whig Party from US politics in 1856.


Beltway-speak for candidates’ intense activity at the end of the electoral year, in which they attempt to build unstoppable momentum with a flurry of advertising, television appearances and campaign travelling. See Front-loading.


Recounts have been a key determinant in previous presidential elections. The 2000 presidential election, between George W. Bush and Al Gore, turned on a controversial recount in Florida. Various county-by-county recounts had been requested by Gore or Bush but neither requested a total statewide recount. There was no agreement on the method of counting votes. Spoiled ballots containing more than one vote for an office ("overvotes") were not counted; had they been Gore might well have won in two decisive counties. But the election was settled in favour of Bush when a Supreme Court ruling stopped the recount.

The rules on recounts vary from state to state. Many states - including Florida - have tightened their electoral laws following the 2000 controversy, making it much harder to conduct meaningful recounts at all. In many states candidates themselves have to request recounts, and pay steeply for them - always assuming that the electronic voting machines now in use (see Electronic voting) produce a paper trail with which a recount can be conducted.


The process of redrawing the geographic boundaries of congressional districts. According to the US Department of State, "both Democrats and Republicans at the state level compete to get hold of the legal and political mechanisms of redistricting – usually by controlling the state legislature. By doing so, they can redraw boundaries of congressional districts in ways that will lend an electoral advantage to their own party."


A state where most voters usually support the Republicans.


One of the two major political parties. The Republican party has traditionally been the party of more affluent and conservative voters. It endorses laissez-faire market economics and opposes the re-distributive economic and interventionist social approach traditionally favoured by the Democrats. It is socially conservative and increasingly dominated by the views of the Religious Right for which moral rather than economic issues are of most concern. Some of these party distinctions have now broken down, and there are emerging liberal republicans, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, as there are conservative Democrats. The first Republican president was Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, elected in 1860. The colour red is usually used to represent Republican states on maps. The party symbol is the elephant.



Sometimes called the upper house of the US Congress, the Senate is theoretically regarded as of equal status with the House of Representatives. It elects 100 members, two from each state, to serve as senators for six years. A third of the seats come up for election every two years.


A feature of the system currently used in the US - and the UK - for electing law-makers. Only one congressman or congresswoman is elected in each district or constituency. The winner is the candidate with the most votes, as with the UK’s first-past-the-post system. The contrast is with those proportional representation systems used in many European countries in which there are several members elected in each constituency.


Political donations raised outside the regulations and laws of the Federal Election Campaign Act. They cannot be used directly to support a presidential or congressional campaign but can be used for "civic activities" such as voter-registration drives, party-building activities and administrative costs and in support of state and local candidates. Soft money tends to use loopholes in the law to fund campaigns indirectly. Parties and candidates in recent presidential elections have worked hard to raise larger and larger amounts of soft money to get around direct limits. Advocates of electoral reform have called for a clampdown on this type of contribution. See Hard money.


In modern presidential politics, a non-binding vote, often taken among party activists and usually at a very early stage in a candidate-selection process, to indicate which candidate or candidates are preferred by a local group.


The "standard" speech of a presidential candidate which he or she deploys in place after place with slight variations.


In the Democratic party, superdelegates are delegates - elected officeholders or party officials - who are not bound to vote in accordance with the decisions of their party primaries or caucuses.

In the 2004 presidential election, Howard Dean acquired an early lead in delegate counts by obtaining the support of a number of superdelegates before the first primaries were held. A candidate needs a simple majority of the combined delegate and superdelegate votes to secure the nomination. See Delegates.


The day in February - 5 February this year - when a disproportionately large number of primaries are held, by both parties, on the same day. The weight of so many simultaneous votes could make or break more than one presidential campaign. The phrase dates from 1988, when a group of southern states banded together to hold a substantial group of early primaries in order to counteract the impact of the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucus. Many subsequent elections have featured clearly identifiable Super Tuesdays; in others, there have been several such groupings of primaries.

The 2008 election has seen the coining of the phrase Super-Duper Tuesday, also dubbed Tsunami Tuesday, on account of the large number of states – more than 20 – that have moved their primaries to 5 February. Some 52 percent of all Democratic and 41 percent of the total Republican Party convention votes will be at stake that day.


States in which the outcome of the vote is uncertain. Some states, such as Missouri, carry few votes in the electoral college. But they have a symbolic importance which makes them regular stops on the campaign trail. Missouri has backed every successful presidential candidate in the 20th Century except Dwight Eisenhower.

In the past, candidates tended to devote their energies, and campaign funds, to the larger states, in pursuit of the 270 college votes needed to win the White House. In 2000, however, the contest between Al Gore and George W Bush became so tight that even the smallest states received special attention. The biggest swing state is Florida, with 25 votes to be fought over.


Voters not loyal to a particular party whose choices can be crucial to the outcome of an election.



System whereby US taxpayers are allowed to contribute $3 of their annual federal income tax payment to a public fund for financing presidential elections. The $3 is diverted from money they would otherwise have paid in tax. See Matching funds.


A US president may serve no more than two consecutive terms, or eight years altogether. Senators and Congressmen are not subject to term limits.


Term used to describe any political party that is not the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. In most elections there are many smaller parties playing some role. The three biggest, each with more than 100,000 registered voters, are the conservative Constitution Party, the fiscally conservative and socially liberal Libertarian Party, and the largest electoral left of centre grouping, the Green Party. Third parties rarely make a significant impact in modern elections, although Ralph Nader won 2.74 percent of the popular vote in 2000, when he ran for the Green Party, and 0.38 per cent in 2004, when he ran as an independent. In both cases, he was accused of splitting the Democratic vote, to George W Bush’s advantage.


Voting for candidates of different political parties in the same election – for example, by voting for a Republican for president and a Democrat for senator.


Type of poll in which voters’ opinions are tracked over time, allowing campaigners to measure the effect of events, speeches, etc, on public attitudes.



If the President approves of legislation passed by both houses of Congress he signs it into law; if he does not approve, he returns the bill unsigned within 10 working days, forcing Congress to reconsider. Congress can override this "presidential veto" by a two-thirds majority in each house, and the bill then becomes law without the President’s signature.


The primary duty of the vice-president is to take over if the president dies, resigns or is impeached. His only other constitutional responsibility is to preside over the US Senate, although he can vote only in the event of a tie. Early vice-presidents had little else in the way of responsibilities. But in recent times vice-presidents have taken on an increasingly prominent role, sometimes managing particular foreign or domestic programmes.