Say What? A Handy Guide To Political Jargon


By Briana Bierschbach
MPR (7/16/18)

After months of stumping on the campaign trail, the incumbent candidate made a substantial fundraising haul, filling their coffers in a critical battleground race.

Get all that? Don’t worry, us either.

Many of those words are some of the worst examples of political jargon, or terms that are rarely heard uttered outside of Capitols, campaign headquarters or newsrooms. Unfortunately, election season is here, meaning this kind of insider political code is spilling out into everyone else’s world via campaign ads, articles and the politicians themselves.

To help you translate it all, here’s a guide to frequently used political jargon that will definitely come up at some point this fall:

Coffers: Apparently, coffer was adapted from Middle English cofre or coffre, which basically means “large basket” or “hamper.” For some reason, political types use it to describe where they keep money they’ve raised in their campaign.

War chest: See “coffers.”

Cash on hand: Candidates like to brag about how much money they’ve raised, but cash on hand is more important: It’s how much money they actually have in their wallet or bank to spend.

Campaign lit: Lit is short for literature, or those large, glossy pieces of campaign material stuffed in a voter’s mailbox to inform them about candidates. The lit can be either positive or negative about the candidate, but it rarely resembles actual literature.

Mailers: See “Campaign lit.”

Running mate: No, this isn’t just a good pal who hangs out with someone on the campaign trail, although that may also be true. This is the person who runs as lieutenant governor alongside a governor candidate.

Ticket: Governor candidate, plus running mate, equals “ticket.”

Incumbent: This is a person who already holds an elected office (and it’s incumbent on them to keep their job).

Stump: It’s what politicians say while they are out campaigning, often called a stump speech, but rarely delivered on an actual stump.

Campaign trail: Where candidates go when they are campaigning, places like parades, community meetings and knocking on doors. Collectively it becomes the proverbial “campaign trail.” Sorry, there’s no actual, physical trail.

Political arena: Lawmakers use this as a blanket term to describe things that are being discussed in Capitols or campaigns. Again, sorry, there’s no actual arena for politics.

Bellwether: It originally meant the lead sheep in a flock. In political terms, a bellwether is a race or a district that might be a predictor or stand-in for a larger trend. If a bellwether district goes to Republicans or Democrats, so might many other districts, for example.

Swing seat: Whether or not a district is “swingy” is a calculation of voting percentages, but in short, it means a place where both candidates have a strong chance of winning and can swing back and forth between the parties.

Battleground: Similar to a swing seat — it could go either way politically — but it also will be a key race in the battle for control of a political chamber.

Dark horse: A candidate who is little-known but suddenly emerges as a contender in a race. It has nothing to do with darkness or horses.

Endorsement: The political parties give their backing or approval to a candidate ahead of the primary and then try to help them win the primary.

Nominee: The person who actually wins the primary race for their respective political party and will appear on the general election ballot. They may or may not have had the endorsement.

Pork barrel: This term is generally used to describe certain government spending that was secured for the sole purpose of bringing some kind of money into a certain lawmaker’s district or fund a specific project. You know, bring home the bacon.

Earmarks: See “pork,” but usually benefiting a larger group of people.

Single payer: This refers to a health care system where providers are paid for their services by the government, not private insurers. With most Democratic candidates advocating for this type of system, it’s going to come up a lot this fall.

Medicare for All: See “single payer.”

Dark money: This is term used to refer to funds raised by nonprofit organizations that in turn spend it in order to influence elections. These nonprofit organizations are not required to disclose their donors, which is where things get “dark.”

Independent expenditure: These are election communications — think television or Facebook ads or that dreaded “campaign lit” — that expressly advocate for you to vote in favor or against a clearly identified candidate but is not made with any cooperation with said candidate.

PAC: Short for Political Action Committee, PACs are established by a corporation or other special interest to raise money to make those “independent expenditures” to influence campaigns.

Have you heard any other puzzling campaign speak you want translated? Consider me your political Rosetta Stone and email me at I’ll keep the guide updated this election season.

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(Commoner Call cartoon by Mark L. Taylor, 2018. Open source and free for non-derivative use with link to )