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What Did They Say? Idioms for Political Campaigns

Eleven Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate in front of President Ronald Reagan's Air Force One during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Sept. 16, 2015.

Eleven Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate in front of President Ronald Reagan's Air Force One during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Sept. 16, 2015.

The presidential campaign is now “in full swing” in the United States. In full swing is just one of many expressions speakers of American English use that may be difficult for speakers of other languages. It means at the highest level of activity, or fully moving forward. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says the phrase has been in use since the mid-1800s. It refers to “the vigorous movement of a swinging body.”

Presidential candidates and the journalists who report on their activities use many political idioms and expressions. Most speakers of American English understand these words and phrases. But people who are not familiar with the ways American political candidates and reporters speak may not.

Here are some idioms and expressions that have been used recently. You may find it useful to keep this list to refer to as you read about the presidential campaign.

Frontrunner: The candidate who has the most votes or the highest level of support in public opinion surveys.

Set the stage: preparing an audience for an event; to make something possible or likely; to note that participants in an event are ready and that the event will begin soon. Sometimes a speaker will set the stage for a debate by telling people what candidates are about to discuss. The speaker might say, “The stage is set for an interesting debate tonight!”

Broaden his appeal beyond the base: Political candidates must work hard to become the nominee of their political party. To do this, they must convince members of their party to vote for them. Party activists are often called the “base” of their party. They are the strongest and most-active supporters of their party.

But political parties in the United States often do not have the majority of voters they need to win an election. Someone who wants to be president must convince many people who do not belong to their party to vote for them. So, after they become their party’s nominee, and sometimes even before, they will talk about issues that are important to people who are not part of their base. This act is called “broadening their appeal.”

Broaden means to make something wider or more general. Appeal means a quality that causes people to like someone. If a candidate does not broaden her or his appeal beyond their party’s base, it will be difficult for them to win the general election.

Presumptive nominee: This expression is often used to describe a candidate with the strongest support among party leaders and the public. Political experts believe the presumptive nominee will be the nominee of the party although she or he has not been named the nominee yet.

Flip-flop: Reporters say a political candidate has “flip-flopped” when they have a sudden change of opinion on an important issue. A politician who supports limiting gun ownership might change their position when surveys show voters do not support such limits. He knows that his support for limits may cause him to be defeated for reelection, so he changes his mind. Political reporters and opponents may charge the politician with “flip-flopping” on the issue because he or she is afraid of losing the election.

Lash out: to attack in speech or writing; to “burst into or resort to verbal or physical attack.” A candidate is said to “lash out” at an opponent who has attacked her positions or beliefs when they react angrily and answer the attack strongly.

Overshadows them all: There are more than 15 Republican presidential candidates and at least five Democrats seeking their parties’ nomination. Experts say only a few of them have a chance to become the nominee. They say Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump “overshadow” their opponents. In other words, Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump “cause the other candidates to seem less important or impressive” by comparison.

The spotlight: Many politicians like the spotlight. They like public attention. A spotlight is “a device that directs a narrow, bright beam of light on a small area” of a stage.

Rationale for running: Some journalists question why a candidate is running for president. The candidate may not have much support. And people may not have given them a lot of money. So, reporters may ask what their rationale for running is. Some candidates run for office even if they do not believe they will win. They may want attention for themselves or for a political cause. Others run because they believe they are the best person for the job.

Where does he fit in to the conversation? Reporters may ask this question when a politician is considering entering a race that is already crowded with candidates. “Why is he running?” They might ask. “What role would he play?” They might wonder what the politician would offer that candidates already in the race do not.

Foreign policy chops: A candidate may be highly experienced in foreign policy. They may be applauded for their “chops.” This is an informal or slang American English word that means “skill or excellence in a particular field or activity (such as acting or playing music).”

Committing political suicide: A politician commits political suicide when they propose or support policies that will cause them to lose a campaign or be removed from office. They may strongly support a policy, but if they lose voter support, they are said to have committed political suicide, or ruined their political career.

Have you heard or read idioms and expressions in stories about the American presidential campaign that you do not understand? Let us know. We are happy to “clear up” any confusion or misunderstanding you might have. By the way, clear up means to explain. We hope this report has explained some of the idioms and expressions you have been hearing recently as the United States continues the process of choosing its next president.

I’m Jim Tedder.

Christopher Jones-Cruise reported and wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.


Words in This Story

familiar with –adj. having some knowledge about something

refer to –v. to have a direct connection or relationship to something

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