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Last updated: January 29, 2016 6:14 pm

US election glossary

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The US democratic process is complicated, with its primaries and caucuses, its convention delegates and the electoral college. This is the FT’s guide to the process.

Ballot access 

Ballot access refers to the requirements, unique to each state, for a candidate to appear on the ballot for the state’s primary or caucus. For instance, Virginia has an unusually high threshold of 10,000 signatures in order to qualify, which caused Mitt Romney and Ron Paul to be the only eligible candidates in 2012.

Battleground state

A battleground state (also called a swing state or purple state) is a state that is involved in a contentious general election race. Candidates spend a disproportionate amount of their time and money in these states. Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania are usually regarded as among the most crucial swing states for any general election presidential candidate.

Bellwether state

A state, such as Missouri, which almost always votes for the eventual winner in the general election. Analysts use these states as forecasters to judge what will happen nationally.

Brokered convention

A brokered convention occurs when no candidate to be the party’s nominee receives a majority of the delegates’ votes after the first round of voting at the convention. This can happen when no candidate receives a majority of delegates after each primary and caucus has been conducted. After the first round of voting, delegates are no longer bound by the results of the state they represent. The party conducts subsequent delegates’ votes until a majority is reached, presumably with back-room deals taking place as candidates attempt to convince their opponents to drop out in a quid-pro-quo arrangement.


A caucus is a meeting organized by a political party to award the delegates of a particular state in the party’s national nominating process. Each precinct of the caucus, which takes place in the stead of a primary, meets locally and reports its results to the state party. Caucuses sometimes require individuals to publicly announce their vote and the voting period is often preceded by speeches from representatives from each candidate’s campaign. Since 1972, Iowa has kicked off the presidential nominating process with its first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Closed primary

In a closed primary, only those voters registered to the relevant political party can participate.


Both parties organize a national convention in which delegates officially cast their votes in accordance with the results of each state’s primary or caucus results. The event lasts several days and prominent members of the party address the delegates and assorted audience, with the party’s Vice Presidential and Presidential candidates making concluding speeches to accept their party’s nomination.


Delegates are chosen in each state with primaries and caucuses. Delegates then go to the party’s national convention to cast their votes, typically bound by the results of their state’s primary/caucus. 1,144 delgates are needed to clinch Republican nomination.

Election day

National elections, including presidential elections, are traditionally held on the first Tuesday of November. This year’s election will take place on Tuesday, November 8.

Electoral college

As called for in the Constitution, the Electoral College serves to officially elect the president and vice president. It is made of 538 electors – a winner must have at least 270 – who cast their vote in accordance with the results of the state they are there to represent. All but two states – Nebraska and Maine – allocate their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Though the members of the Electoral College were originally permitted to vote however they chose, they are now expected to vote for whoever won the plurality of votes in their state.

Federal matching funds

Presidential candidates can opt in to a federal program that matches each contribution up to $250 dollar-for-dollar. A candidate who opts in must show viability by raising at least $5,000 in at least 20 different states, and is limited to just over $40m in spending in the primary season. A candidate who wins a party’s nomination is then eligible to again opt in to receive public funds for a one-time block grant of around $80m, and, upon accepting, can no longer collect private contributions for the campaign. In 2000, George W. Bush became the first major-party candidate to reject federal matching funds since they became available in the 1970s.

Non-binding primary

Also known as a “beauty pageant” primary, non-binding designates a primary in which delegates are awarded a state convention, and the distribution is not necessarily a reflection of how the state voted in its primary. Instead, delegates at the state convention are free to vote how they choose.

Open primary

In an open primary, any registered voter can cast a ballot, regardless of the party with which the voter is registered.


A political action committee is an organised group that raises money in order to support or defeat a candidate or issue in an election. Some PACs are associated directly with a campaign or politician, some are associated with a corporation or union and others are completely independent. The rules and regulations that govern where a PAC’s money comes from and how much it can raise – there is a $2,500 donation limit – are strictly monitored by the Federal Election Commission. However, the fundraising landscape was fundamentally altered by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010, which paved the way for the creation of super-Pacs.


A majority of states use a primary system to award their delegates. Primaries are operated by the state rather than a political party, and the results are calculated with standard private ballots, similar to general elections. After the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire holds the nation’s first primary, followed by primaries in South Carolina and Florida.

Reagan Democrat

Reagan Democrats are generally thought of as working-class, moderate, white Democrats who felt abandoned by their party and voted for Republican Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 elections.


A “Republican In Name Only” is a term used to describe politician who is a member of the Republican party but whose moderate views make others question his commitment to conservative values. Those labelled a RINO typically vote with Democrats far more often than an average Republican. The term DINO refers to a “Democrat In Name Only”.

Straw poll

Straw polls are non-binding votes that simply serve as a precursor to an actual election, primary or caucus to give an indication of the current status of the race. Before Iowa, the media and campaigns alike have viewed the Ames Straw Poll as an important test of candidates’ viability. A September straw poll in Florida won by Herman Cain is widely credited with giving rise to the underdog candidate.


The Citizens United Supreme Court decision loosened the restrictions on who can give how much to political action committees, giving rise to what has become known as “super-Pacs”. These groups can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, trade groups and individuals, with very loose rules dictating how and which contributions must be disclosed. They are technically independent and cannot co-ordinate with a political candidate for office in any way, but can run advertisements for or against any candidate or issue. In reality, however, each candidate has a super-Pac that supports them and few voters can tell the difference between ads run by a candidate’s campaign and those by the super-Pac of its supporters. Many super-Pacs, such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, have created sister “charity” organisations to filter money through to further muddy the origins of their contributions.

Super Tuesday

The day in which the largest number of states hold their primary or caucus. This year’s “Super Tuesday” will take place on March 1st. This year, the states include: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.


Superdelegates are typically prominent members of a political party, such as elected officials or former office holders and party leaders, who are free to vote for whomever they want. Some of these un-pledged delegates will choose to simply vote for whoever wins in his or her home state. Superdelegates have played a larger role in the Democratic nominating process, as they made up about one-fifth of the party’s total voting delegates in 2008.

Wedge issue

A wedge issue is a controversial political topic used by a candidate to create a fissure in the support of his opponent’s supporters. Wedge issues tend to be social in nature; in 2012, many expect Democrats to use immigration as a wedge issue to woo Latino voters with fiscally conservative values who would have otherwise voted Republican.

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