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What’s so super about Super PACs?

By Katherine Connor Martin

Back in January we published a short glossary of the jargon of the presidential primaries. Now that the campaign has begun in earnest, here is our brief guide to some of the most perplexing vocabulary of this year’s general election.

Nominating conventions

It may seem like the 2012 US presidential election has stretched on for eons, but it only officially begins with the major parties’ quadrennial nominating conventions, on August 27–30 (Republicans) and September 3–6 (Democrats). How can they be called nominating conventions if we already know who the nominees are? Before the 1970s these conventions were important events at which party leaders actually determined their nominees. In the aftermath of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention, however, the parties changed their nominating process so that presidential candidates are now effectively settled far in advance of the convention through a system of primaries andcaucuses, leaving the conventions themselves as largely ceremonial occasions.

Purple states, swing states, and battleground states

These three terms all refer to more or less the same thing: a state which is seen as a potential win for either of the two major parties; in the UK, the same idea is expressed by the use of marginal to describe constituencies at risk. The termbattleground state is oldest, and most transparent in origin: it is a state that the two sides are expected to actively fight over. Swing state refers to the idea that the state could swing in favor of either of the parties on election day; undecided voters are often called swing votersPurple state is a colorful metaphorical extension of the terms red state and blue state, which are used to refer to a safe state for the Republicans or Democrats, respectively (given that purple is a mixture of red and blue). Since red is the traditional color of socialist and leftist parties, the association with the conservative Republicans may seem somewhat surprising. In fact, it is a very recent development, growing out of the arbitrary color scheme on network maps during the fiercely contested 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Electoral vote

What really matters on election day isn’t the popular vote, but the electoral vote. The US Constitution stipulates that the president be chosen by a body, theelectoral college, consisting of electors representing each state (who are bound by the results of their state election). The total number of electors is 538, with each state having as many electors as it does senators and representatives in Congress (plus 3 for the District of Columbia).  California has the largest allotment, 55. With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, all of the states give their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in their state on a winner-takes-all basis, and whichever candidate wins the majority of electoral votes (270) wins the election. This means it is technically possible to win the popular vote but lose the election; in fact, this has happened three times, most recently in the 2000 election when Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush was elected president.


The choice of a party’s candidate for vice president is completely in the hands of the presidential nominee, making it one of the big surprises of each campaign cycle and a topic of endless media speculation. The perceived jockeying for position among likely VP picks has come to be known colloquially as theveepstakes. The 2012 veepstakes are, of course, already over, with Joe Biden and Paul Ryan the victors.

Super PAC

If there is a single word that most characterizes the 2012 presidential election, it is probably this one. A super PAC is a type of independent political action committee (PAC for short), which is allowed to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and individuals but is not permitted to coordinate directly with candidates. Such political action committees rose to prominence in the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and related lower-court decisions, which lifted restrictions on independent political spending by corporations and unions. Advertising funded by these super PACs is a new feature of this year’s campaign.


It isn’t often that an obscure provision of the tax code enters the general lexicon, but discussions of Super PACS often involve references to 501(c)(4)s. These organizations, named by the section of the tax code defining them, are nonprofit advocacy groups which are permitted to participate in political campaigns. 501(c)(4) organizations are not required to disclose their donors. This, combined with the new Super PACs, opens the door to the possibility of political contributions which are not only unlimited but also undisclosed: if a Super PAC receives donations through a 501(c)(4), then the original donor of the funds may remain anonymous.

The horse race

As we’ve discussed above, what really matters in a US presidential election is the outcome of the electoral vote on November 6. But that doesn’t stop commentators and journalists from obsessing about the day-to-day fluctuations in national polls; this is known colloquially as focusing on the horse race.

The online magazine Slate has embraced the metaphor and actually produced an animated chart of poll results in which the candidates are represented as racehorses.

This article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Katherine Connor Martin is a lexicographer in OUP’s New York office.

Oxford Dictionaries Online is a free site offering a comprehensive current English dictionary, grammar guidance, puzzles and games, and a language blog; as well as up-to-date bilingual dictionaries in French, German, Italian, and Spanish. The premium site, Oxford Dictionaries Pro, features smart-linked dictionaries and thesauruses, audio pronunciations, example sentences, advanced search functionality, and specialist language resources for writers and editors.

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