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Political Idioms: What Did He Say?

Republican U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump (L) speaks as Senator Ted Cruz (R) watches during the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, Dec. 15, 2015.
Republican U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump (L) speaks as Senator Ted Cruz (R) watches during the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, Dec. 15, 2015.
Political Idioms: What Did He Say?
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Republican presidential candidates debated in Las Vegas, Nevada for the final time this year.

During debates -- and when they speak to reporters, supporters, aides and others -- candidates often use interesting words, phrases and expressions. In most cases, only speakers of American English can understand what these “idioms” mean.

Idioms are “expressions that have a different meaning from the meaning of the individual words that make up the idiom.”

American political idioms can be confusing to speakers of other languages. They can even be confusing to Americans who are not familiar with the ways political candidates speak!

Today, we present more of these idiomatic expressions and their meanings. You may find it useful to keep this list to refer to as you read reports about the presidential campaign.

Many of the definitions in this report came from

What does he bring to the table? – what qualities does she have that will benefit the situation or us? How can he help us?

A reporter may want to know about a candidate’s experience or education and may ask, “What do you bring to the table?” A coach tells a reporter that he believes his current team could be the best he has ever had. He says of the players: “What they bring to the table that makes us such a good team is that they have no ego. What they bring to the table that makes us such a high scoring team is…”

Take options off the table – to remove issues from a negotiation that were at one time being considered.

For example, a broadcaster reported that Congress was taking some Social Security payment “options off the table.”

He’s only got one shot – having only one chance to achieve a goal.

A local official considering a plan to improve roads might say: “This is a big project, and we’ve only got one shot to get it right.”

Go the distance – to carry through a course of action to completion; to continue to do something until it is successfully completed; to do the whole amount; to play the entire game; to run the race until the end.

Political reporters often ask if a candidate has enough money, energy and support to finish a campaign: “Can she go the distance or will she run out of money halfway through?”

In the mix – included as part of a group; being considered.

A newspaper headline wondered if a local team was “in the mix” for a championship.

Gain traction – the support or interest that is needed for something to succeed or make progress.

When a bill fails to gain traction in the Senate, it does not pass.

Political expediency – often negative providing an easy and quick way to solve a problem or do something.

A candidate might ask his opponent to do the right thing, not the politically expedient thing.

Stack the deck – to arrange things against someone or something; to arrange things secretly for a desired outcome; to arrange something in a way that is not fair in order to achieve what you want; to arrange something so that it is unfair to someone.

Some candidates complain that the way a debate is designed hurts them. They may complain that the debate organizers have “stacked the deck” against them.

Stand your ground – to not change your position when you are being attacked; to not retreat.

For example, “The candidate has continued to stand her ground despite criticism” of her plan.

Unilateral action – involving only one group or country.

“If no other country joins us, we will act unilaterally to defend our interests.”

Have you been hearing or reading idioms and expressions in stories about the American presidential campaign that you don’t understand? Let us know. We’ll explain them in future reports.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Christopher Jones-Cruise reported this story and wrote it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

Have you heard expressions from American political candidates or reporters that you don’t understand? Write them in the Comments section or on our Facebook page and we will tell you what they mean.


Words in This Story

confusing - adj. difficult to understand

refer to - phrasal verb to look at or in (something) for information

benefit - v. be useful or helpful to someone or something

negative - adj. harmful or bad; not wanted; not positive

expedient - adj. an easy and quick way to solve a problem; often used negatively

achieve - v. to be successful; to get something by working hard for it