AP updates: vocabulary for election season

“Make friends with your stylebook,” I advise incoming students each summer at international pre-orientation.  “Not only will you learn AP style, but you’ll also learn a lot about the English language.”  These days, of course, “stylebook” really means the online version. It’s superior to the physical book for two reasons: it’s updated constantly (as opposed to a new edition once a year), and subscribers periodically receive e-mail updates — like the one that landed in my inbox his morning.

This e-mail starts with grasssroots and STEM and USMCA, but scrolling down, I found a goldmine of political terminology pegged to the midterm elections. International students struggling to make sense of U.S. politics should read and digest them, and then use them correctly in their copy.

Here, quoted verbatim, are highlights of the e-mail — which you should have received through your J-school subscription. If so, read it and pay attention. And if you haven’t yet signed up for your subscription? Do. Now. And use it.


Midterm Elections Topical Guide




A political grouping or tendency mixing racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and populism. Avoid using the term generically and without definition. When discussing what the movement says about itself, the term “alt-right” (quotation marks, hyphen and lowercase) may be used in quotes or modified as in the self-described “alt-right” or so-called alt-right. See the full entry in the Stylebook for more detail and related definitions.

Congress, congressional

Capitalize when referring to the U.S. Senate and House together. The adjective is lowercase unless part of a formal name.

congressman, congresswoman

Used only for members of the U.S. House.

Democrat, Democratic Party

Both terms are capitalized. Do not use Democrat Party unless quoting someone.

democratic socialism

Political leaning akin to European democratic socialism, embraced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, New York Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others.

leftist, ultra-leftist, left-wing

Avoid these terms in favor of more precise descriptions of political leanings and goals.

majority, plurality

A majority is more than half the votes cast; a plurality is the largest number of votes, but less than a majority.


Informal term for the Affordable Care Act. May be used in quotation marks on second reference.

PAC, super PAC

A political action committee raises money for candidates or parties from individuals, but not — at the federal level — from businesses or labor unions. A super PAC may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, including from corporations and unions, to support candidates for federal office but must operate independently.

party affiliation

A candidate’s political party is essential information in any election, campaign or issue story.


A fixed area into which a municipality is divided for voting purposes.

precincts reporting

Avoid. In states with large numbers of absentee and early vote ballots, the number of “precincts reporting” may one or two, but account for as much as half of the total vote in a state.


Political philosophy or ideas that promote the rights and power of ordinary people as opposed to political and intellectual elites. Avoid labeling politicians or political parties as populist, other than in a quote or paraphrase: He calls himself a populist. Using the term in a general context is acceptable: The panelists discussed the rise of populism in Europe. She appealed to populist fervor.


Avoid the term, which can imply improvement, as a political descriptor except in quotes or the names of organizations or political parties.

Republican, Republican Party

Both terms are capitalized. GOP, standing for Grand Old Party, may be used on second reference.

rightist, ultra-rightist, right-wing

Avoid these terms in favor of more precise descriptions of political leanings.

representative, Rep.

Use Rep., Reps. as formal titles of House members before one or more names. Spell out and lowercase representative in other uses.


A requirement that a proposal or candidate gain a level of support that exceeds the threshold of a standard 50 percent plus 1 majority.

tea party

Lowercase the populist movement that opposes the Washington political establishment. Adherents are tea partyers. Formally named groups in the movement are capitalized: Tea Party Express.


close race

Avoid the term to describe a political contest unless backed up by voter surveys.

dark horse

Someone who emerges from the political shadows to seek a nomination.


Candidate who leads a political race; the term is hyphenated.

generic ballot

Polling that asks voters if they will vote for Democrats or Republicans for Congress in the November election without specifying their local race.


To manipulate voting districts unfairly to gain an advantage, or to disadvantage opponents.

head to the polls

Avoid. Such a phrase does not account for the as much as 40 percent of the electorate that will cast a ballot before Election Day.

horse race

Closely contested political contest is preferred.


Politically powerful person who boosts candidates into office.

rank and file (n.), rank-and-file (adj.)

Ordinary members of a political party.

stalking horse

Someone who enters a political race to lure voters away from rivals, then drops out and endorses another candidate.


Avoid. A prominent person who campaigns on behalf of a candidate.

wave election

An election in which one party makes dramatic gains.


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