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Political Phrases to Know Ahead of Election Day

Political Phrases to Know Ahead of Election Day

By Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark - September 2, 2014

Each campaign cycle spawns its own vocabulary. In 2012 the political world sadly got introduced to the phrase “legitimate rape,” uttered by then-Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee in Missouri. And who could forget Mitt Romney’s presidential debate utterance about “binders full of women”?

The 2014 midterm election season already is yielding a crop of political jargon. There’s “Cantored,” stemming from then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's epic failure to win his GOP primary. The result spawned a new term synonymous with a powerful politician’s unforeseen dethronement.

Or consider the seemingly obscure but fun to say “zugzwang.” It’s a chess term referring to a situation in which any possible move in a game will weaken a player's position; in politics, it defines the constraints facing a party or lawmaker stuck in a tough spot.

It surfaced recently on Vox.com, where Matthew Yglesias deconstructed House Speaker John Boehner's pursuit of a lawsuit against President Obama. Yglesias argued that "the best thing for House Republicans to do this summer and fall is nothing.” But polarized political parties are more structured to engage in zugzwang than self-enforced idleness.

Political history is full of such terms, as we write in “Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech (published by ForeEdge).  “Dog Whistles” decodes what politicians really mean when they use odd-sounding, insider-ish phrases. With a forward by Jeff Greenfield, the television journalist and author, “Dog Whistles” aims to keep readers' antennas on high alert for intentionally confusing language by political types of both parties.

Here are some of our favorite -- and most relevant -- political phrases for campaign 2014, and likely beyond.

Going Bold. Not to be confused with the memorable 2008 phrase “going rogue,” this one refers to a politician’s common description of their own or their party’s proposals. It manages to be a punchy, optimistic-sounding break with conventional thinking and deliberately vague all at once.

GOP Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin warned Romney’s campaign several months before the 2012 election that the nominee would lose if he didn’t “go bold.” Walker’s fondness for the word earlier led one critical Badger State blogger to write a post headlined “Bold Ideas Are Politically Shrewd, But Mostly, ‘Bold’ Is Just a Clothes Detergent.”

Newt Gingrich based his entire unsuccessful 2012 White House bid on what he repeatedly termed “bold solutions.” Ralph Nader called one of his books “Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future.” And so on.

When a politician does something even a little bit unexpected, “bold” is often the first word heard on-air or read online. Stephen Colbert mocked this on his show after Romney chose the more-conservative Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. Colbert showed a stream of pundits and campaign officials using the word, followed by an ad for the Chili’s restaurant chain that promised “the bold flavor you’re craving.” Then he put in his trademark two cents about Ryan: “Bold! Bold! So daring! White, Christian, and male?”

Optics. How voters and the media perceive something. In politics, it often is an event, phrase, or policy that is pushed front and center because of the belief that it will help win more votes.

On Super Tuesday 2012, as Republicans in 10 states voted in key primaries, President Obama unveiled several new efforts to reduce refinancing costs and bring justice to service members who lost their homes through wrongful foreclosures. Housing industry experts noted the timing. “This is more about optics than it is about substance,” Brian Gardner, an analyst with KBW Inc., told National Journal. “We are in campaign season.”

We trace the political use of the word to 1978, when the Wall Street Journal quoted a Jimmy Carter aide, Robert Strauss, as saying that business leaders who went along with Carter’s anti-inflation measures might be invited to the White House as a token of appreciation. “It would be a nice optical step,” Strauss said. In an editorial, the Journal dismissed the idea: “Optics will not cure inflation.”

“Most important election of our lifetime.” A cliche that partisans from both sides trot out before each presidential election, warning ominously of effects if the other side were to win.

Typical in this regard was conservative talk-radio host and columnist Dennis Prager, who wrote in May 2012, “The usual description of presidential elections -- ‘the most important in our lifetime’ -- is true this time. In fact, it may be the most important election since the Civil War, and possibly since America’s founding.”

Democrats are equally prone to such hyperbole. Liberal writer Jonathan Cohn argued in the New Republic, “The differences between Obama and Romney are not ambiguous -- not even now, after Romney’s post-convention attempt to act like the more moderate, more sensible Republican many of us once thought he could be. The gap between what Obama and Romney believe -- and between what each man proposes to do -- is larger than it has been for any election I can remember.”

Bill Clinton used this construct often in 1996 -- but if you hear it in a midterm election season, be skeptical.

“The only poll that matters is the one on Election Day”: The standard spin move of the candidate who trails in polls. As the Rothenberg Report’s Nathan L. Gonzales wrote in a 2012 column, “This doesn’t guarantee defeat in the upcoming election, but it means you are losing the race at the time and have no empirical evidence to the contrary.”

Among those who’ve recently said or tweeted some variation on the expression is Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who lost his bid for Virginia’s governorship in 2013 after polls showed him consistently trailing Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the race’s concluding months. So did Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, after he was caught on video smoking crack and his approval ratings took a nose dive.

But winning candidates increasingly say it, too—just to ensure their supporters don’t get complacent and decide to stay home on Election Day. A spokesman for Democratic Massachusetts state Rep. Martin Walsh said it on the eve of the election in which Walsh won Boston’s mayorship. And in New York, a spokeswoman for Democrat Bill de Blasio was saying it two months before de Blasio’s even more resounding victory to become that city’s mayor.

Chuck McCutcheon is co-author of National Journal’s Almanac of American Politics and co-editor of CQ’s Politics in America 2010.

David Mark is editor-in-chief of Politix and a former senior editor at Politico. He is the author of “Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning.”

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