US & Canada

Glossary: US elections A-C

What is the difference between hard money and soft money? Or between Medicare and Medicaid? These are just a few of the many well-used - but often misunderstood - terms in US politics.


Air war The battle between candidates to get as much advertising on television and radio as possible.


Balancing the ticket When a candidate has won his or her party's presidential nomination, he or she is then obliged to pick a "running-mate" who would become vice-president if the candidate won the election. The two are then referred to as "the ticket".

Candidates are often advised to pick a running-mate who "balances the ticket" - that is, one whose qualities make up for the candidate's perceived weaknesses.

Ballot initiative This is a procedure in some US states, whereby citizens can draw up a petition for a proposed change in the law. It will be placed before voters in a referendum if it gathers enough signatures.

If the change is approved by the voters, it becomes law.

Sometimes, political parties may organise ballot initiatives on controversial issues in an attempt to drive up turnout among their core supporters. For example, in 2004, a number of states held referendums on Republican-initiated ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage.

Ballot initiatives are sometimes referred to as "ballot measures" or "propositions".

Bellwether state A state which, historically, tends to vote for the winning candidate, perhaps because it is - demographically - a microcosm of the country as a whole.

The classic example of a bellwether state is Missouri, which has voted for the winner in every US presidential election since 1904 - except 1956 and 2008.

Beltway An American term for an orbital highway that often surrounds major cities. In political reporting, the term generally refers to congressional business undertaken inside the highway surrounding Washington DC - Interstate 495. For example, "a beltway issue" refers to a political issue or debate considered to be of importance only to the political class and of little interest to the general public.

Bill of Rights The collective term for the first 10 amendments of the US constitution establishing the fundamental rights of individual citizens.

The amendments limit the powers of federal and state governments. Acts of Congress or laws ruled to be in conflict with these rights may be declared void by the US Supreme Court.

Birthers A term for conspiracy theorists who doubt Barack Obama was born in the US - a constitutional requirement for holding the presidency. Mr Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii and released a certified copy of his birth certificate in 2007. However, some birthers allege the certificate was a forgery.

Blanket primary A primary election (to select a candidate for a general election) in which voters may ignore party lines. For example, a voter may choose to vote for a Republican senator and a Democratic governor. The Supreme Court has ruled the system unconstitutional. A more common practice is the open primary.

Blue dog A term usually referring to a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives. Many blue dogs come from Republican-oriented states and are concerned with fiscal restraint and conservative social values.

Blue state A state where people tend to vote for the Democratic Party.

Brokered convention A convention is described as brokered if a candidate for a party's presidential nomination does not obtain the majority of the votes during the primary and caucus process, or during the first round of voting at the party convention.

The nomination is then decided through further ballots.

Buckley vs Valeo The 1976 Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited spending by individuals or groups who are not standing for election themselves but who wish to support particular candidates.

The provision does not apply to contributions made by corporations or unions. It rules that in any donor situation there must be no consultation with any candidate.

The court's decision overruled two major parts of the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act which imposed mandatory spending limits on all federal races, and limited independent spending on behalf of federal candidates.

Bundler A bundler is a person who uses personal or professional networks to organize or "bundle" numerous political donations for a candidate or party.


Capitol Where Congress meets in Washington DC.

The Capitol building is home to both the Senate and House of Representatives as well as various committee and hearing rooms and an art gallery.

The steps of the domed Capitol building are the stage for the formal inauguration of presidents in the January following an election year.

Most states have their own capitol buildings in the state capital, many of which have a similar design to the building in Washington.

Carpetbagger This dismissive term is applied to politicians running for office in states or communities where they have only lived for a short time. Hillary Clinton, for example, was called a carpetbagger when she ran for Senate in New York because she had grown up in Chicago and lived much of her adult life in Arkansas and Washington DC.

Caucus A private meeting of party members designed to seek agreement on delegates for a state or national nominating convention.

Participants in presidential caucus meetings generally elect delegates to county conventions who later choose delegates for a state or local congressional convention. Selected delegates are not bound, but usually follow the wishes of caucus-goers.

Citizens United A 2010 Supreme Court ruling that overturned aspects of the McCain-Feingold Act on the use of corporate and union money in elections.

In a controversial 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations should be viewed the same way as individuals in terms of their First Amendment right to free speech.

Using that rationale, it overturned a ban on corporate and union spending on advertisements that mention a candidate's name within 60 or 30 days of an election (depending on whether it is a general or primary election).

Now, unions and corporations will be able to directly advertise right up until election day, as long as they haven't co-ordinated their advertisements with a candidate's campaign.

The ruling maintained the McCain-Feingold Act's ban on corporations and unions directly donating to candidates and political parties, as well as the requirement for ads to disclose their funding sources.

Closed primary A primary election (to select a candidate for the general election) in which only registered members of a party are permitted to vote. Registered Democrats vote for Democratic Party candidates, and registered Republicans vote for Republican party candidates.

Cloture The procedure to place a time limit on consideration of a bill in the US Senate.

Under a cloture motion, the Senate can limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours. To be carried out, it requires at least 60 out of 100 votes by members of the Senate.

The use of a cloture thus prevents a filibuster - an attempt to infinitely extend debate upon a proposal by making a never-ending speech.

Commander in chief The constitutional role granted to the president as head of the United States' armed forces.

Under Article III of the Constitution, the president is given authority to lead "the army and the navy of the United States and of the militia of the several states when called into the actual service of the United States."

No president since James Madison in the War of 1812 has personally led troops into battle.

Congress forms the law-making or legislative branch of the US government as prescribed in Article I, Section I of the US Constitution.

It is made up of two houses - the 435-member House of Representatives and 100-member Senate, which officially have equal power.

A congressional period lasts two years (or sessions) and begins at noon on 3 January of odd-numbered years.

Congressman/woman This term is most often used to refer to a member of the House of Representatives, but it can be used to refer to a member of either of the Houses of Congress - the House of Representatives or the Senate.

Constitution of the United States The fundamental law of the US federal system of government. The constitution defines the principal organs of government, their jurisdictions and the basic rights of citizens.

It is upheld as the supreme law of the land, meaning all federal and state laws, executive actions and judicial decisions must be consistent with it.