From Attack Ads to Zoom Moms – your handy guide to the 2020 US presidential election

All the terms you need to know in the run-up to November 3

The US presidential election is looming. Reuters
The US presidential election is looming. Reuters

Approval rating

Opinion polls ask Americans not just who they will vote for on election day, but also how well they think the incumbent president is doing his job. Historically high approval ratings are generally in the 70 per cent range. Donald Trump is currently hovering around 40 per cent.

Attack Ads

Often combined with negative campaigning, these are advertisements which frequently focus on the negative side of an opponent, distorting their views or maligning personal conduct. Donald Trump’s Dangerous TV spot from 2016 claimed Hillary Clinton was weak on national security and then implied serious health issues by showing footage of her coughing. In negative campaigning, President Trump likes to call his opponent Joe Biden “Sleepy Joe” suggesting the 77-year-old Democrat is verging on the senile (Donald Trump is 74).

Bellwether state

A Bellwether State is one that generally always votes for the winning candidate and can be a good indication of how an election is going even before the final count is announced. Since 1896, the president has taken Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada and Ohio more than eight times out of ten. Bellwether is a medieval English word that originally referred to a bell placed around the neck of a castrated ram (a wether) who would lead around a flock of sheep. So not much like American politics.


The presidential election is generally considered to be over when one of the candidates admits defeat, or concedes. Before making a concession speech to console their supporters, they traditionally make a private phone call to the victor wishing them well and in return receive a gracious reply praising a well fought campaign

Covid, Contrarian

Step aside gun control and abortion. Coronavirus is the divisive campaign issue of 2020. Covid Contrarians vocally disagree with the conventional wisdom on coronavirus on issues like masks and social distancing and as such are generally identified with Mr Trump and issues of personal freedom.

In one report, a customer at RJ's Bob-Be-Que Shack in Kansas pulled a gun on the owner when asked to wear a mask. He was wearing a MAGA hat (see MAGA) although the President now favours covering your face.

Election Day

Under the US law, Presidential Election Day is always the first Tuesday after November 1. It must also be in an even numbered year. At the same time, voting by post is allowed up to 50 days before hand, and in five states this is compulsory. In some elections up to a third of people have voted before election day.

Electoral collage

People watch the electoral college map as the votes are counted in the 2012 US presidential election. Reuters
People watch the electoral college map as the votes are counted in the 2012 US presidential election. Reuters

The Electoral College is why Hillary Clinton got more votes in 2016 but Donald Trump became president. Americans actually vote for delegates pledged to one of the candidates in a presidential election. These electors then confirm the vote in the Electoral College.

The system was created to protect the interests of more rural areas who are given a higher percentage of electors than big cities. A candidate who piles up huge numbers of votes in urban areas may not see this fully represented in the Electoral College. This has happened on five occasions, including 2000 when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost to George W Bush,

Elephants and Asses

Republicans use an elephant to symbolise their party, while Democrats favour an ass or donkey. In a country where even the smallest infant school baseball team has a name like “the raging stallions” they seem odd choices. The symbols go back to the 1860s and the reason seems to be lost in time. One suggestion is both animals imply strength and stamina. Among other things.

Fake News

Originally any story that Donald Trump didn’t like. For 2020 this is expanded to any fact that Donald Trump doesn’t like. Sometimes used ironically by his opponents, with limited success given the US doesn’t really do irony.


One way of winning an election is to manipulate geographical boundaries so that they include areas that support you, or move out those of your opponent. This can produced oddly shaped districts including one won by Elbridge Gerry in Boston in 1812 that was said to resemble a salamander – hence “gerrymandering.”

This is generally an issue in state and local elections, which involve multiple posts, rather than the national two horse race for the presidency. However some have argued that the Electoral College system is effectively a form of gerrymandering (see Electoral College)

Inauguration day

In the UK, a defeated prime minister will look out of his window the next morning and see a moving van pull up. Losing a presidential election is a more leisurely affair. Defeat for President Trump on November 3 will keep him in the Oval Office until January 20, 2021. This is Inauguration Day, when the new president is sworn in. During those 12 weeks Mr Trump has pretty much a free hand, without consequence.


People wearing MAGA hats listen as US Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 27. Reuters
People wearing MAGA hats listen as US Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 27. Reuters

Stands for ‘Make America Great Again!’ the slogan used by Donald Trump in his successful presidential campaign in 2016. Now recycled for 2020, presumably because America is still not quite great again.

PAC and Super PAC

Political Action Committees (PACs) are supposedly non affiliated organisations that raise money to support a particular candidate or issue. They are a way to get round campaign spending limits imposed by the law on candidates and frequently take the form of nasty and distorted “attack ads” on TV, roadside billboards and most of all, social media (see Attack Ad).

While PACs have a limit on the amount of money they can give, so called Super PACs can spend as much as they want, as long as they have no actual provable connection with the candidate they support. In 2016, Hillary Clinton benefited from over $200 million (Dh734 m) in Super PAC spending, far more than Donald Trump, whose campaign was largely funded by small donations and his own cash.

Red States and Blue States

Red States traditionally vote Republican, while Blue States are Democrats. This might seem odd to the rest of the world, where red is generally associated with socialism and blue with conservatives.

No one seems to know why, except that America likes to be different.

Running Mate

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden arrive for the Presidential Inauguration of Donald Trump at the US Capitol in Washington in 2017. AP
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden arrive for the Presidential Inauguration of Donald Trump at the US Capitol in Washington in 2017. AP

Once chosen as candidate, presidential hopefuls must pick a running mate who will become Vice President if elected, a job described by John Adams, the first holder, as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Running mates often “balance the ticket” to widen voter appeal. To boost support in the south John F Kennedy picked Lyndon B Johnson from Texas. The easy charmer Bill Clinton went for Al Gore, possibly the most earnest man in US politics. In Mike Pence, Donald Trump has gone for a man who makes him look like Martin Luther King Jnr.

Safe State

A state that almost always votes Republican or Democrat no matter who is the candidate. Over the last six elections these have included California and much of the Northeast for Democratic presidential candidates and Texas, the Midwest and much of the South for the Republics. Sometimes called the Blue Wall (Democrat) and the Red Sea (Republican). (see Red State/Blue State)

Swing or Battleground State

States that can be won by either candidate and therefore the subject of enormous attention from campaign advertising and the media as well as the politicians. In most recent elections these include Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all crucial to victory. Often the vote can be tight, as with Florida in 2000, which after several recounts was awarded to President Bush and handed him the White House.

Soccer Moms/Guardian Women/Sanitiser Mom/Zoom Mom

Soccer Moms first appeared in the 1996 election, a key demographic identified as white, middle income women who put their family first and voted for Bill Clinton because they trusted him. For 2020, the US media has trendily rebranded them variously as “Zoom Moms”, “Sanitiser Moms” and “Guardian Moms”, the later referring to their protective nature rather than as feminist readers of the left-wing British newspaper.


All of 44 holders of the presidency have been men, and 43 have been white. That will not change with the 45th. Hillary Clinton came closest in 2016 and it is possible Joe Biden may yet pick a black woman as his potential vice president (see John Adams under Running Mate).


The average age of a president on election is 55. Donald Trump is 74, but will no longer be the oldest president in history if 77-year old Joe Biden wins in November. See Women

Published: July 26, 2020 05:44 PM


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