How to Run for Office: The Political Dictionary

The Go-To Guide for Political Newbies

Reading Time: 8 minutes

We’ve all heard that Schoolhouse Rock song about how a bill becomes a law (if you haven’t, here it is). But for some of us, that’s where our political knowledge stops. If you’ve been keeping up with our blogs and have your head spinning with some of the terms we’ve been using, fear not — NDTC is here with a guide to basic political vocabulary to teach you about the political jargon we use everyday.

Don’t try to memorize all this in one sitting: there’s a ton of information that is easier to learn with time and practice. We recommend bookmarking this blog for a quick and easy reference so that you always have a political dictionary in your pocket.

  • 527 Organization: a tax-exempt group organized under section 527 of the U.S. tax code. This kind of group can raise unlimited funds for things such as GOTV efforts and issue advocacy, etc. However, a 527 may not advocate for or against any particular candidate.

An example of a 527 organization is the Young Democrats of America

  • Absentee Voting: a vote cast by a person who has been permitted to vote by mail. It’s a good option to vote with if you have too many things on your plate to actually get down to the precinct. Reasons usually include being absent from your usual voting district, illness, or inability to access the usual polling place.
  • Base Voter: a group of voters who almost always support a single party’s candidates for elected office. This is a consistent, reliable source of support for the Party and you can count on them to vote for you when calculated your vote goal.
  • Bicameral: a type of legislative body that has two branches, chambers, or houses. Our U.S. Congress has a bicameral structure consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
  • Biennium: a two-year term of legislative activity. For example, a seat in the House of Representatives is a two-year term.
  • Canvass: everyone’s favorite campaign activity — knocking on doors and making telephone calls. This is a type of field campaigning where candidates and/or volunteers try to engage in personalized contact with an individual. While it’s one of the more time consuming activities, it is highly valuable to a campaign.
  • Alaskan caucus

    Caucus: a meeting of party leaders to select candidates, elect convention delegates, etc. Some states rely on caucuses to elect their party candidates depending on the kind of primary election system that state uses. This video explains what a caucus is in more detail.

  • Coattail Effect: also known as the down-ballot effect, this is seen when a popular political leader attracts votes for other candidates of the same party in an election that are usually for offices in lower positions. For instance, people who voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 also voted for people down the ballot: these were votes that wouldn’t have been cast if Obama, or a Democrat as popular as him, hadn’t been running.
  • Constituency: a body of voters in a specified area who elect a representative to a position. These are the people you have to convince to vote for you — and people will try to convince you to vote for them too!
  • Contribution: money, goods, or services given to a campaign without the expectation of repayment. There are two kinds to be aware of:
  • Monetary: traditional contributions of money in form of cash, check, or credit card. These need to be reported to the FEC.
  • In-kind: these are contributions made in the form of goods and services; they still need to be recorded on the campaign’s financial report. For example, a local restaurant can donate food to a candidate for a political fundraising event.
  • Disbursement: the act of paying out or disbursing money. In the context of elections, this is the delivery of funds from a donor’s bank account to your campaign bank account.
  • Electorate


    Electorate: the group of people entitled to vote in an election. This changes depending on the size of the race, ranging from local to national.

  • FECA: the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. This is the primary United States federal law regulation political campaign spending and fundraising.
    1974 Amendments: after Nixon’s Watergate scandal, these amendments attempted to combat corruption by creating the FEC.
  • Federal Election Commission: commonly referred to as the FEC, this is an independent regulatory agency whose purpose is to enforce campaign finance law in federal elections.
  • Federalism: this is the basic political structure of our country — it’s a form of government with a division of powers between two levels of government of equal status. For example, in the US, there is a shared authority between the federal government and the state government.
  • how gerrymandering can rig an election

    An example of how gerrymandering can rig an election.

    Gerrymander: this has a reputation of being known as a method of voter manipulation. Essentially, this occurs when people divide a state, county, etc., into electoral districts in a way that gives one political party a majority in that territory while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible. This way, certain districts are purposefully manipulated to contain a certain number of partisan voters in order to guarantee a win for a particular party in that district.

  • GOTV: the acronym that stands for Get Out The Vote. This is the phase of the campaign where the final efforts are made to encourage constituents to vote on or before Election Day. This is the most critical part of the campaign.
  • Hard Money: political donations that are strictly regulated by law through the FEC.
  • High-Frequency Voter: voters who participate in all or nearly all of the election cycles their district has — this is opposed to voters who vote maybe once every three election cycles or exclusively during presidential elections.
  • Incumbent: the current holder of an office.
  • Jungle Primary: no, this isn’t an election that takes place in a jungle. Also referred to as a nonpartisan blanket primary, it’s a type of primary election where voters can vote for any candidate regardless of the candidate’s party affiliation. Only a handful of states use this kind of primary.
  • Types of Law:

Common Law: a type of law set by precedent in court and by the interpretation of Constitution and statute law.

Statute Law: the governing action or procedure approved through the legislative process.

  • Logrolling: this is one of the terms used in the “game” of politics. It’s when a politician trades favors or votes in order to pass measures that are of interest that legislator or his/her constituents.
  • Low-Frequency Voter: a voter who doesn’t participate in every election cycle. This voter may only turn out in presidential elections or sporadically for other elections. At NDTC, we define a low-frequency voter as someone who has voted in 3 or fewer of the past 4 election cycles.
  • On Message: sticking to the talking points in speeches, debates, and canvassing while not being distracted or thrown off topic. It’s important to practice this on the campaign trail, especially in debates or interviews where the other person will try to distract you from what’s important to your campaign.
  • Operative: a paid staffer on a campaign (not to be confused with your volunteers!).
    Persuasion Phase: getting the message out about why people should vote for you. This typically takes place after the initial announcement of the campaign and lasts till Election Day when candidates focus on the GOTV phase.
  • Plurality: a voting system in which a candidates with the most votes wins — essentially, the candidate doesn’t need the traditional 50% + 1 vote in order to win. Some special elections use this voting system instead of the majority vote.
  • Political Action Committee: referred to as a PAC, this is an organization established by a corporation or other special interest to raise money from individuals for a political campaign or other political cause. There’s a limit to how much a person or group can contribute to a PAC, with the cap being $5,000.
  • Super PAC: unlike a PAC, a super PAC can receive unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, and labor unions. Most notably, they can call for the success or defeat of specific candidates. This video explains the difference between a PAC and a super PAC.
  • Political Capital: this refers to the trust, goodwill, and influence a politician has with the public and other public figures. It’s a type of invisible currency that politicians can use to mobilize the voting public or spend on policy reform.
  • Pork Barrel: this is another word that is used in the game of politics. It’s a metaphor for the instance in which government funds are saved for projects that are used solely or primarily to bring money into a representative’s district.
  • Power Broker: a person who influences people to vote for a specific thing (an elected official, referendum, etc.) in exchange for political and financial benefits.
  • Precinct map

    Precinct map

    Precinct: a district marked out for governmental or administrative purposes.
    Reapportionment: the practice of redrawing legislative district boundaries to provide equality of representation. This is done in the hopes of avoiding gerrymandering, but it’s always successful in doing so.

  • Referendum: a type of direct vote where an entire electorate is asked to vote on a particular proposal. This can result in the adoption of a new law.
  • Soft Money: money donated to political parties in a way that leaves the contribution unregulated. This typically occurs through Super PACs; in many instances, donors do not need to disclose their identities, meaning that even that the FEC doesn’t know who is giving how much money to the super PAC. This is especially controversial because super PACs can call for the explicit success or defeat of specific candidates.
  • Split Ticket: where a voter in an election votes for candidates from different political parties in a single election.
  • Straight Ticket: this is when a voter chooses candidates from the same political party for every office up for election.
  • Stump Speech: a standard speech used by a politician running for office. This is one of your most valuable tools in a campaign! A good stump speech should include your introduction, the problem or reason why you’re running for office, your solution to the problem, a personal story to connect with the audience, and an ask for them to volunteer, donate, or vote. Whatever you do, don’t be like this guy. For an example of what a good stump speech looks like, check out Hillary Clinton’s speech to Iowans in 2016.
  • Sunset: the expiration date of a legislative measure.
  • Obama’s town hall meeting w/ Young African Leaders.

    Obama’s town hall meeting w/ Young African Leaders.

    Town Hall: an informal meeting of a representative’s constituencies in their home district or a specific demographic he or she wishes to appeal to.

  • Turnout: the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election.
  • Undervote: this happens when a voter votes for less than the maximum number of candidates in that election. This typically occurs when a voter shows up to vote for a president and any other number of elected offices with high visibility and doesn’t have enough information to vote for candidates down the ballot, so that voter leaves that option blank.
  • Unicameral: a legislative body having only one house, such as a city council.
    Vote Deficit: the difference between the number of base voters you have and the number of votes you need in order to win — these are the number of voters you need to persuade to vote for you.
  • Vote Goal: the total number of votes you want to receive in an election.

For some of these terms, specifically regarding PACs, super PACs, and 527 organizations, this is just a brief overview of what they are. Campaign finance organizations and laws are very nuanced and have specific and rigid rules regulated them. Before creating your own campaign finance organization, be sure to do some more in-depth research into the nature of these groups.

This information may seem overwhelming at first, but the more you engage in the kinds of conversations that use this vocabulary, the easier it’ll be to remember it all. Even we sometimes need a reminder of what a term actually means.

Tomorrow, calculating your vote goal.

  How to Run for Office