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50 political terms to know for the upcoming election

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Rob Crandall // Shutterstock

50 political terms to know for the upcoming election

Words have the ability to evoke specific emotions and sway an electorate. Politicians and members of the media use carefully chosen words to present ideas, and the disparities between how the day’s major issues are described—and how voters respond—couldn’t be starker.

Virtually every wedge issue in today’s politics has its own set of words around it, co-opted by a specific political party with words that reframe debates around those issues. Whether tax relief, pro-choice, Socialism, Obamacare, or free college, the language we use to describe some of today’s most pressing issues helps determine how those issues are understood—or prove to cloud their true meanings.

Yet for how inundated we are with lightning-fast news cycles and a saturated media market, it’s striking how many political terms get batted around without the public having a clear understanding of what they all mean.

Take caucuses, for example. Every four years, Iowa kicks off the primary voting season with a caucus. The process involves people from a political party gathering to determine which candidate to vote for rather than individuals voting in booths. People go to assigned precinct locations and participate in hours-long meetings where cases are made for different candidates. 

“Caucus” is just one of many political terms relevant to the 2020 election that eludes a good percentage of people in the electorate (a point only exacerbated by this year's debacle with the app used to report results). To simplify things ahead of the 2020 election, Stacker consulted recent headlines and polling on major issues to come up with 50 terms related to various policies, voting issues, and social reforms being discussed by the presidential candidates.

Whether you’re confused on what exactly socialism is or unclear on what a single-payer health care system would look like, we’ve got you covered with concepts affecting voters in this year’s election.

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Rob Crandall // Shutterstock

Voting: Electoral college

Though Americans head to the polls every four years to choose the president, voters don't actually do so. Instead, each of the 50 states and Washington D.C. are allocated a certain number of electors based on a state's total number of senators and House members in Congress. On election day, voters actually vote for the electors that will later cast their ballots in the Electoral College for president (most states give all their electors to the winner of the popular vote in the state). Candidates must receive 270 of 538 votes in the Electoral College to win the presidency. This system was put in place to put an additional check on the decision-making of the American public and make sure that smaller states have their voices heard when choosing the president. However, the system is complicated and has its issues.

Five presidential elections in the U.S. have been won by a candidate who lost by the popular vote: John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump. Votes in small states have more power than those in large states, and electors themselves can vote for a candidate that didn't win the vote in their state. Some critics have called for the Electoral College to be abolished due to these complicating factors.

[Pictured: Voting polling place in Arlington, Virginia.]

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Steve Heap // Shutterstock

Voting: Voter fraud

Voter fraud is comprised of any form of illegal activity in election processes, from registration fraud (as a nonexistent person, forging for someone else) to impersonation. Fraudulent action also includes ballot-stuffing (illegal votes, casting multiple ballots), suppression of eligible voters, and vote-buying (candidates paying off voters). The most recent, notable example concerned allegations of systematic foreign interference from Russia in the 2016 presidential election, as outlined in the Mueller Report.

[Pictured: Multiple "I Voted" stickers with USA flag on blue jacket.]

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Rob Crandall // Shutterstock

Voting: Voter suppression

Voter suppression is a form of voter fraud related to attempts to prevent or limit registered voters from casting their ballots. Suppression efforts historically—particularly in Jim Crow southern states—included intimidation tactics to turn away and disenfranchise Black voters. More recently, Wisconsin’s voting rights came under fire during the 2016 election, when new voter ID laws led to an enormous decrease in turnout, especially among minorities and Democrats.

[Pictured: Voters on presidential election day in Arlington, Virginia.]

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Steven Frame // Shutterstock

Voting: Swing vote

Swing voters typically aren't members of either political party, their ballots can be hard to predict, and they are often vital in determining the outcome of an election. There are also congressional swing voters who cross party lines to ensure legislation passes, or—as in the case of the 2017 vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act—that it fails. The Supreme Court also tends to have a swing vote; a more moderate liberal or conservative justice will cross ideological lines to rule on important issues. Prior to his 2018 retirement, this was usually Justice Anthony Kennedy.

[Pictured: United States Supreme Court building.]

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Sundry Photography // Shutterstock

Voting: Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is a practice that involves redrawing political boundaries on maps that benefit one party over another during elections. It's an old practice dating back to the founding of America and takes its name from Massachusetts governor and signer of the Declaration of Independence Elbridge Gerry; he signed a redistricting bill in 1812.

Critics pointed out that one of the districts that favored his political party (the Democratic-Republicans) looked like a salamander...or a “Gerry-mander.” Today, gerrymanders that disadvantage racial minorities have been deemed unconstitutional and voters on both sides of the aisle have taken to the Supreme Court in order to outlaw gerrymanders that favor one political party over the other.

[Pictured: Participants in the Women's March event holds a sign referencing voting suppression in San Francisco, California.]

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Matt Smith Photographer // Shutterstock

Voting: Battleground state/swing state

The Electoral College has caused presidential elections to boil down to a handful of states with a large number of electoral votes and enough swing voters that either Democratic or Republicans could win them. These battleground states can change from election to election as a state's demographics change. Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan were key to President Donald Trump's ultimate victory in 2016.

Some speculate that Republican strongholds in the Sun Belt like Arizona and Texas could be 2020 battlegrounds due to rising numbers of millennial and Latino voters (who typically vote for Democratic candidates). Meanwhile, states like Virginia and Colorado which were previously swing states are now seen as solidly Democratic due to their recent voting history.

[Pictured: Donald Trump holds a sign during a rally at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.]

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Lisa F. Young // Shutterstock

Voting: Voter ID

Thirty-six states have some form of voter ID laws, which supporters of the laws claiming they are the most direct and efficient response to fraud. Laws range from requiring photo IDs to voters providing signatures that the polling place checks against their files. Opponents of strict voter ID laws point out there is very little fraud of this type, no evidence of election “rigging,” and claim instead that voter ID laws are discriminatory practices that keep people—predominantly people of color—from casting votes.

Proponents see increasing requirements for identification as a way to prevent in-person voter impersonation and increase public confidence in the election process. Opponents say there is little fraud of this kind, and the burden on voters unduly restricts the right to vote and imposes unnecessary costs and administrative burdens on election administrators.

[Pictured: Woman shows her voter ID and picks up her ballot at the polling station.]

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lev radin // Shutterstock

Voting: Constituent

America is founded on the principle of government “by the people, for the people.” The American public votes for leaders they feel will represent their interests at the local, state, and federal levels. A politician's constituency is made up of all the people in the district who elected him or her, even those who might have voted for someone else. For example, a congressional representative's constituents might be residents of a city or a small part of their state while a senator is responsible for representing all the residents of their state.

[Pictured: U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attends 3rd Annual Women's Rally and March on the streets of Manhattan.]

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BluIz60 // Shutterstock

Voting: Wedge issue

Though political parties are made up of people with similar views on important economic and social issues, the Democratic and Republican parties are made up of millions of voters of different states, races, ages, sexual orientations, gender identities, and socioeconomic class. Not everyone is going to agree on everything. These differences of opinion can drive a wedge between candidates and the people they want to vote for them or even split the parties into factions. The Democratic Party famously lost huge numbers of white voters in the South due to the party's support for civil rights and integration in the 1960s. Today, immigration, gun control, reproductive rights, and government involvement in providing health care are huge wedge issues that divide members of each party from their voters and each other.

[Pictured: Georgia State Sen. Elena Parent speaks at a Moms Demand Action anti-gun, anti-NRA rally in Atlanta, Georgia on April 29, 2017.]

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BU Interactive News // Flickr

Voting: Super Tuesday

Super Tuesday, which occurs in 2020 on March 3, refers to the most active presidential primary election day. Though not officially a national primary day, Super Tuesday is significant in that the highest number of states hold primaries that day, representing about 40% of voters. Super Tuesday is seen as a strong indicator of who will be a party’s eventual nominee.

[Pictured: Super Tuesday primary election site in Arlington, Massachusetts.]

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Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post // Getty Images

Voting: Pledged and unpledged delegates

Pledged delegates are selected at the local or state level to vote for specific candidates, while Democrat superdelegates can vote for whomever they want. Republicans have superdelegates as well, but they are required to vote for whoever won a specific state’s primary. In this way, the candidacy of incumbent President Trump was bolstered in 2016 because other candidates didn’t meet the threshold for delegates to vote for them. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders saw the downside of untethered Democrat superdelegates who pledged their support for Hillary Clinton before primary results were even in.

Because of objections in 2016, delegate rules for 2020’s Democratic nomination have been changed. Superdelegates may not vote on the first ballot at the convention unless the outcome is clear. If the convention is contested, all delegates become untethered.

[Pictured: Crowds cheer as Hillary Clinton delivers her keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016.]

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Joseph Sohm // Shutterstock

Voting: Referendum

Most of the time, voters elect representatives to their state legislature or Congress and those elected officials then work to enact the policies they think their constituents agree with. However, some states also have a referendum process whereby important issues can be put on the ballot to be voted on directly by the people. Legislative referendums are placed on the ballot by the government for people to vote on while veto referendums require citizens to collect signatures in order for a law to be put on the ballot. Voters then decide whether they want to keep the law or get rid of it. Twenty-six states and Washington D.C. have some kind of referendum process.

[Pictured: Citizen votes in election booth polling in Oak View, California.]

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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Voting: Silent majority

Republican President Richard Nixon was sworn into office in January 1969 amidst peak opposition to America's role in the Vietnam War following a series of high-profile anti-war protests the year before. Despite this, Nixon gave a speech that November in which he announced America would not be pulling out of the war and asked “the great silent majority, my fellow Americans… for your support." Nixon believed the opinions of a majority of Americans didn't match the left-wing anti-war demonstrators marching in the streets. Today the term is used similarly, reflecting any situation in which a large group of people doesn't support the opinions most often shared in public.

[Pictured: Counterprotesters show their support for the war during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in New York City in 1967.]

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mark reinstein // Shutterstock

Political parties: Independent

A voter or political candidate that has not declared affiliation with a party is considered to be independent. Synonymous with independent, “non-party,” “unenrolled,” and “unaffiliated” can all be used to refer to an independent, but note that “nonpartisan” means something different—a group or person that does not express support for one party or candidate more than another. While 2019 research from Pew reports 38% of U.S. adults identify as independent, the majority still lean toward a major party, Democratic or Republican. Only 7% truly are independent without a partisan leaning.

[Pictured: Supporters for independent candidate for governor Greg Orman in Hutchinson, Kansas.]

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Bill Clark // Getty Images

Political paries: Bipartisan

Democrats and Republicans rarely agree on policy matters, an issue that's only grown worse as members of Congress and the voters that elect them have become more ideologically extreme. When legislators manage to overcome their political differences and pass laws together, they've “crossed the aisle” to pass bipartisan policy. Polling shows that Americans tend to favor this kind of compromise. Even today's increasingly divided Congress has passed bipartisan legislation reopening the government after the December 2018–January 2019 shutdown, sanctioning Russia for election interference, reforming the criminal justice system, ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen, and more.

[Pictured: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduces the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019.]

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Cengiz Yar // Getty Images

Political parties: Democratic Socialist

Often confused with communism, socialism is its own economic and political ideology. Though both were largely fueled by the writings of Karl Marx in the mid-to-late 1800s and work to eliminate social classes for a more equal world, socialist ideology allows citizens to spend their wages however they want to and allows the government to maintain control of industry and the means of production.

Many countries have adopted some principles of socialism by adopting strong social safety net programs and providing government-sponsored health care. In the U.S., socialism retains negative connotations stemming back to the days of the Cold War, but the popularity of self-proclaimed Democratic socialists who advocate for programs to limit income inequality by raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy, like Bernie Sanders (pictured here) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have indicated that tides may be changing, especially among millennial voters.

[Pictured: Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 22, 2020, in El Paso, Texas.]

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Samuel Corum // Getty Images

Political parties: Right wing

Right wing refers to the more politically conservative groups on the political spectrum; the Republican Party is the more right-wing of the two major parties in the U.S. On the far end of the spectrum are “alt-right” or “far-right” groups, which have become more visible in 2019. These groups tend to have extreme or radical conservative views when compared to those who would be closer to the “center” on a linear political spectrum.

The use of “right” and “left” to categorize conservative and liberal political groups stems back to the days after the French Revolution. While writing the 1789 Constitution, those who advocated for less power to the king sat to the left of the presiding officer while those who wanted to adopt a more conservative approach that let the king keep more of his power sat to the right.

[Pictured: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) holds a news conference on Capitol Hill.]

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Tasos Katopodis // Getty Images

Political parties: Left-wing

Left-wing is the opposite side of the partisan spectrum and refers to more politically liberal groups. The French politicians that sat to the left while writing the country's 1789 Constitution wanted to do away with the traditional monarchy and the king. Likewise, today's left-wing groups or parties tend to favor more radical political reform than their right-wing counterparts. In the United States, the Democratic Party would be considered the more left-wing of the two major parties, with more radical parties like the Democratic Socialists of America falling even further to the left.

[Pictured: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) hold a press conference.]

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NurPhoto // Getty Images

Political parties: Moderate Republicans

Moderate Republicans tend to be more progressive than average with their social views and less fiscally conservative. Examples of Moderate Republicans are Mitt Romney, Will Hurd, and Susan Collins.

[Pictured: Mitt Romney Attends Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing.]

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Lawrence Jackson // Official White House Photo

Political parties: Partisan politics

Partisan politics veer strongly to one side of the political aisle or the other, often unquestioningly. The Senate blocking all a president’s bills simply because that president is in a different political party is an example of partisan politics, as is pushing all the bills from one politician through without being discerning about what is contained therein.

[Pictured: President Barack Obama outlines the details of the American Jobs Act during an address to a Joint Session of Congress.]

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Barcroft Media // Getty Images

Political systems: Interventionism

As the world becomes increasingly global, problems in one country can quickly lead to problems outside its borders. Interventionism is typically used to mean another country stepping into political, economic, or social problems in another country (though it can also mean the government making more economic regulations at home). The United States has a long history of intervening in the affairs of other countries, kicking off after the Spanish-American War in 1898.

America has occupied countries like the Philipines for economic benefit, conducted military assaults and covert operations to change leadership regimes in the Middle East and Latin America, and supplied weapons or funds to allies in global conflict.

[Pictured: A protester holds a placard in Los Angeles, California.]

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NurPhoto // Getty Images

Political systems: Nationalism

Patriotism is often defined as having pride in one's country. Nationalism takes this pride a step further; nationalists exalt their country above all else and promote its culture and at the expense of other countries and cultural groups within the country. Nationalist in its current meaning was outlined by a Prussian scholar in 1772 and has been a driving force behind some of the biggest wars in world history, including both World Wars.

President Trump is a self-described nationalist, part of a larger wave of right-wing nationalists coming to power in Europe and around the world, usually as a result of large waves of immigrants and refugees coming to the country. Today, the term is also heavily associated with white nationalist movements, which espouse racist ideologies of white supremacy. It's not all bad though; some scholars identify a positive civic nationalism that is more closely aligned with patriotism.

[Pictured: U.S. President Donald Trump greets supporters in Hershey, Pennsylvania.]

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George Rinhart/Corbis // Getty Images

Political systems: Fascism

Benito Mussolini, Italy's leader during World War II, coined the term fascist in 1919 when he founded Italy's Fascist Party. Today, the word is often thrown around as an insult to refer to political ideas that someone disagrees with. In general, a fascist government is a right-wing totalitarian government that espouses hyper-nationalist, often racist, ideas. Mussolini and Hitler—perhaps the world's most infamous fascists—played off the fears of the majority of their citizens and used that to justify the persecution and murder of millions of Jews, as well as their political opponents and others who didn't fit their nationalist vision.

[Pictured: Benito Mussolini addressing crowds during the Declaration of the Italian Empire, May 9, 1936, in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, Italy.]

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Gage Skidmore // Wikimedia Commons

Campaigning: Political action committee (PAC)

Running a political campaign in the U.S. is incredibly expensive and it keeps getting more pricey; the 2018 midterms currently stand as the costliest in history. While some voters prefer to directly donate to their preferred candidates, others make use of political action committees (PACs) which were first founded in the 1940s. These groups register with the Federal Election Commission if they raise more than $1,000 in a calendar year to influence the outcome of an election.

There are limits to the amount a PAC can accept from individual donors and how much they can give to a single candidate or party. A super PAC also must register with the FEC but operates under slightly different rules—most significantly, they can accept unlimited contributions from any source in the U.S. AT&T Inc (pictured here) is the third-largest PAC contributor and gave $3,108,200 to candidates in 2017–2018.

[Pictured: Republican National Committee Chairman, Reince Priebus speaks at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference.]

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Barcroft Media // Getty Images

Campaigning: Stump

Campaigning requires candidates to travel around their cities, states, or country, meeting people and giving speeches so voters can get an idea of why they should be elected. This grueling campaign process is called “stumping.” Most politicians also have a “stump speech” that they can reuse with only minor tweaks no matter where they are. The word comes from the early days of American politics when candidates would stand on tree stumps to deliver their speeches.

[Pictured: Joe Biden addresses his supporters during his No Malarkey bus tour in Waterloo.]

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CHRIS DELMAS/AFP // Getty Images

Campaigning: Dark money

Campaign finance rules are numerous and can be difficult to follow if you aren't actively involved in electoral politics. Individuals are only allowed to donate up to $2,800 to a given candidate in the 2020 election, but people and groups can get around these limits by donating to political action committees (PACs) and nonprofits that run ads on behalf of their favored candidates. Most of these groups are required to disclose the names of individuals who make donations, but some don't. When sources of donations aren't disclosed, that's dark money—a term that dates back to at least 2010.

[Pictured: An editor looks at the campaign donations websites from some of the Democratic party candidates.]

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Carwil Bjork-James // Flickr

Campaigning: Lobbyist

A lobbyist attempts to influence a public official—not to be confused with bribery. Lobbying is a legal practice in politics and is actually protected under the First Amendment, which states citizens have the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 defines a lobbyist and dictates how they must comply with government registration as well as how they must conduct their business. Lobbying is important because it allows individuals to band together to rally for what they need, it establishes and allows for access to government officials, and it helps bring to light citizens’ most pressing interests.

[Pictured: Occupy Wall Street activists in New York City.]

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Campaign Bootcamp // Flickr

Campaigning: Push polling

Polling is used by candidates to figure out how voters feel about certain issues, test the popularity of their biggest policy ideas, see how well they're doing in the race, and sometimes, to change the outcome of an election. Push polls are disguised as those other, more acceptable kinds of polling, but actually skew toward one candidate and try to spread misinformation or sway voters on certain issues.

The practice has been denounced by almost all legitimate political research organizations for being deceptive since those being called don't actually know what the poll is for or who is running it.

[Pictured: Campaign staffers work the phones.]

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Ryan Henriksen/For The Washington Post // Getty Images

Campaigning: Super PAC

A political action committee (PAC) is a group that works to raise private funds to support a political campaign. Corporations can’t directly donate to a candidate, but they can donate to PACs. PACs have caps on contribution amounts, with funds then donated directly to a political campaign.

In the case of a Super PAC (a new form of PAC that came about in 2010), there is no financial cap on the amount of a donation—but a Super PAC can not donate directly to a campaign. Instead, Super PACs will spend funds raised from corporations, individuals, labor unions, and other PACs on independent efforts to influence an election such as advertisements.

[Pictured: Interns with the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC make calls in their local office to gather opinions of Nebraska's 2nd district.]

 

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Caroline Brehman // Getty Images

Campaigning: Mudslinging

Negative campaigning is a campaign strategy almost as old as American democracy itself, dating back to one of Thomas Jefferson's supporters calling John Adams “a hermaphrodite” during the election of 1800. The term “mudslinging” comes from a Latin phrase meaning “throw plenty of dirt and some of it will stick,” which is often the strategy used when politicians make these personal character attacks against their opponent.

Polling finds that most ordinary Americans disapprove of this kind of negative campaigning and studies on whether or not mudslinging ads actually benefit candidates have had mixed results. Still, the amount of negativity in American electoral politics has been increasing for years and doesn't look to be changing any time soon.

[Pictured: Truck advertisement parked outside of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas, Nevada.]

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a katz // Shutterstock

Campaigning: Demagogue

“Demagogue” is a critical term for politicians who gain support by exciting emotions instead of giving rational arguments as to why they should have the public's support. The word comes from Greek and literally means “leader of the people,” but demagogues often gain support by appealing to people's existing prejudices. In the worst-case scenario, this tactic incites mass violence against groups of people, most horrifically during the Holocaust.

The word has been used more in U.S. political discourse after the election of President Donald Trump. Critics cite his nationalist rhetoric, his racially charged remarks about Latino and Muslim people, and his breaking of political norms—while supporters see him as a president putting America first on the world stage.

[Pictured: Activists gathered at Columbus Circle to oppose Republican front-runner Donald Trump on March 19, 2016, in New York City.]

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Barcroft Media // Getty Images

Campaigning: Spin

Spin is a form of propaganda used by governments, political parties, and officials to make themselves look good and the “other side” look bad. Examples of spin date back to the Ancient Greeks, with plenty of examples in the modern U.S. of American presidents manipulating the media or putting out propaganda designed to make themselves look better. Luckily, social scientists have found that humans are pretty good at resisting spin even if politicians might wish otherwise.

[Pictured: Media briefing in Washington, D.C.]

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JOHANNES EISELE/AFP // Getty Images

Campaigning: Disinformation

Though they sound similar, disinformation and misinformation are slightly different concepts. Misinformation is false information spread around regardless of whether the person sharing the information intended to share falsehoods; in fact, they often believe everything they've heard.

Disinformation, on the other hand, implies that the person who shared the information intended to mislead others and influence public opinion. “Fake news” was originally used during the 2016 election to refer to fabricated stories that deliberately misled potential voters, such as a popular story that claimed the Pope endorsed Trump for president. He did not, but the disinformation campaign spread to millions of voters via social media.

[Pictured: A man dressed as "Fake News Media" participates in the annual Village Halloween parade in New York.]

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Jer123 // Shutterstock

Health care: Medicare for All

Notably, Sen. Bernie Sanders sponsored a Medicare for All bill designed to expand federal health insurance for those aged 65 and over. Rather than choosing a private health insurance plan, everyone would have the same coverage provided by the government. Fellow presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren also supports Medicare for All and has provided her own financing plan for the program to the tune of $20.5 trillion.

Other candidates like Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar support “Medicare for all who want it.”

[Pictured: Medicare for all sign at a bus stop in Washington, D.C.]

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pikselstock // Shutterstock

Health care: Single-payer system

One example of a single-payer system is Medicare for All—the idea that the same, single coverage is financed for everyone. While the government foots the bill in a single-payer system, it is not always the provider and can use private companies for the insurance itself.

A single-payer system is not the same as a government providing socialized medicine, which would involve the governing body employing health care providers, owning health care facilities, and paying all medical bills.

[Pictured: A customer paying in the pharmacy.]

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Leigh Trail // Shutterstock

Education: Free college

Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election cycle promoted the idea of free college in the U.S.—a concept that has become a cornerstone in progressive circles. His plan would render all public state colleges and universities free, with individual states covering 33% of tuition and the federal government covering the other 67%.

Presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are in favor of free college; former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar are in favor of two free years; and Mayor Pete Buttigieg supports making college debt-free.

[Pictured: Students mingle on the Quad lawn of the University of Illinois college campus in Urbana-Champaign.]

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Eric Broder Van Dyke // Shutterstock

Education: Student loan debt

In 2020, student loan debt reached an astonishing $1.56 trillion, according to Forbes’ Zack Friedman. The situation can be labeled a crisis considering not only its effect on over 44 million borrowers who owe an average of more than $30,000, but also its persistence; millions of retirees remain in student debt and thus financial distress for much of their lives. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed notable loan forgiveness plans on the campaign trail. Opponents highlight the negative repercussions on the federal deficit and for taxpayers.

[Pictured: Student holds sign addressing student debt on campus at the University of Hawaii Manoa.]

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EvgeniiAnd // Shutterstock

Education: School choice

Typically children are assigned to public schools based on the district in which they live. With “school choice,” these options are expanded in several ways such as tax breaks for private school scholarships, education savings accounts, or open-enrollment laws so they can attend public schools in other districts, charters, and magnets, or elect to be home-schooled. In his most recent State of the Union, President Trump called on Congress for an expansive tax-credit scholarship program regarding, in part, public funds for private school. School choice is a debated issue among both parties.

[Pictured: Yellow school buses waiting in line in Boston, Massachusetts.]

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a katz // Shutterstock

Economy: Income inequality

The widening wealth gap and income inequality are perennially discussed in American politics and on campaign trails. The Washington Post’s Taylor Telford reported in September 2019 that U.S. income inequality—the division between the nation’s rich and poor—hit a five-decade high based on Census Bureau data. Even as unemployment and poverty remain relatively low, the rich have gotten richer, the gap has widened, and median household income hasn’t changed in 20 years adjusting for inflation. Both Sanders and Warren have proposed high taxes on the super-wealthy.

[Pictured: Occupy Wall Street activist with signs by Zuccotti Park sculpture in New York City.]

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MOLPIX // Shutterstock

Economy: Tariffs

Tariffs are taxes imposed on certain imports or exports. In 2019, tariffs imposed by the Trump administration ballooned by 123% over 2017 to $71 billion. Those fees, paid for by American importers of foreign products such as steel manufacturers in the U.S., have essentially increased the cost of production—theoretically driving down demand for foreign goods in order to bring new trade agreements. In the interim, these tariffs are bruising the economics of sectors from farming to manufacturing.

[Pictured: Container loading in a cargo freight ship.]

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Spencer Platt // Getty Images

Economy: Crony capitalism

Capitalism is an economic system that relies on the power of the free market to determine how much things cost, how much businesses pay, what products are sold, and which jobs people work. Most governments put some regulations in place to protect workers from exploitation, preserve the environment, and keep the economy running smoothly.

Crony capitalism looks like that on the surface but laws and regulations instead give favorable treatment to people and businesses with close relationships with governmental officials. The term itself was coined in a 1980 Time magazine headline about the Filipino economy.

[Pictured: People walk past the New York Stock Exchange.]

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Spencer Platt // Getty Images

Economy: Bailout

A bailout is a monetary lifeline given to prevent a company or economy from failure. Twenty-eight billion dollars in bailout money for farmers has been allocated by the Trump administration to offer aid in the face of a trade war that significantly wounded American farmers’ income. President Trump in February 2020 suggested more bailout money may be coming to further soothe the farming sector.

[Pictured: People walk by the New York Stock Exchange.]

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Airman 1st Class William Tracy // U.S. Air Force photo

Social welfare programs: Universal child care

The idea of providing all families with child care, and eliminating fees, has been a common denominator among Democratic nominees. A number of contributing factors have created a child care crisis, chief among them the propensity of parents occupied by work, the scarcity of licensed professionals, and the expense.

In February, Sanders presented the latest proposal, a 10-year, $1.5 trillion budget to provide child care and pre-K with no tuition. In December, Pete Buttigieg presented his own $700 billion plan to offer the same, including full-day child care.

[Pictured: Program assistant with the CDC at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado.]

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USDA // Flickr

Social welfare programs: SNAP benefits

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is a federally funded low-income benefits program. Households must meet certain requirements in order to become eligible for an Electronic Benefits Transfer card. Trump, in his most recent budget proposal, wants to slash funding for food stamp programs in an effort seen by some as a method of addressing the deficit, and by others as removing a critical safety net for Americans who need help.

[Pictured: A sign for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.]

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ohn Lamparski // Getty Images

Environment: Green New Deal

Largely supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans, the Green New Deal is an economic and environmental legislation package (the name is inspired by FDR’s New Deal reforms in the wake of the Great Depression). The New York Times’ Lisa Friedman describes the overall mission as “[reducing] greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid the worst consequences of climate change while also trying to fix societal problems like economic inequality and racial injustice.”

The sweeping proposal includes creating fully renewable energy and transportation methods, transitioning millions of jobs to the green economy, and providing greater access to higher education and health care, to name a few aspects.

[Pictured: Taylor Schilling, Jane Fonda, Khadouna, and Kyra Sedgwick demonstrate during the "Fire Drill Friday" climate change protest on Dec. 6, 2019, in Washington, D.C.]

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KK Stock // Shutterstock

Environment: Offshore drilling

The United States in 2018 consumed on average 20.5 million barrels of petroleum every day, according to data from the U.S. Energy Administration. To support that appetite at home and abroad, companies around the world maintain oil pipelines, pursue agreements to drill in new locations for oil, and store oil in massive reserves. Offshore drilling—a highly controversial practice for the threats it poses to the environment—is a means of extraction popular within the Trump administration. But in response to pressure from coastal Republicans and legal impediments to drilling, Trump is reportedly shelving his push for offshore oil expansion until after the 2020 election.

[Pictured: Offshore oil drilling rig in Huntington Beach, California.]

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Ugis Riba // Shutterstock

Environment: Carbon tax

A carbon tax is a fine imposed for using carbon fuels such as coal, gas, or oil, with the intended goal of curbing or eliminating the use of these fuels. The list of American companies embracing a carbon tax as a means of fighting climate change has grown dramatically in 2020 despite ongoing debates over whether such a tax would help or harm the economy.

[Pictured: Smoking pipes of a thermal power plant.]

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The Washington Post // Getty Images

Immigration: DREAMers

There are about 10.7 million immigrants living without documentation in the U.S., according to a report by The New York Times. Of that group, about 3.6 million entered the country before their 18th birthday. For many, the United States is the only home they can remember. Congress in 2001 failed to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would have given these immigrants a pathway to legal residency.

Those who would have qualified for this status are referred to as DREAMers after the failed legislation, and many have been advocating for themselves and their rights in the two decades. After more than 20 failed attempts at passing this or similar legislation, the Obama administration used an executive order to establish Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. While not providing citizenship, this program allowed DREAMers to protect themselves from deportation and become eligible for work permits, college enrollment, and more benefits.

The Trump administration announced plans to end DACA in 2017, but legal complaints have kept the program alive. The status of DREAMers remains the subject of political debate in the large conversation about immigration and border security.

[Pictured: Demonstrators gather in front of the United States Supreme Court.]

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Bill Clark // Getty Images

Military and veterans: Defense spending

International military spending in 2019 climbed by 4% over the year prior, according to data released by The Military Balance 2020 assessment. The Trump administration in 2019 proposed a $750 billion military budget for the following fiscal year, representing the biggest military budget in history. The agreed-upon amount for fiscal year 2020 came out to $738 billion.

Political candidates Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Sen. Bernie Sanders are all in favor of reducing military spending, while former Vice President Joe Biden and former Great Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg support an increased defense budget.

[Pictured: Aerial view of the Pentagon building.]

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Sarah Silbiger // Getty Images

Gun rights and control: Background checks

While background checks are federally mandated in the U.S. for all firearm sales from licensed dealers, just six states mandate universal background checks for the sale of all firearms: California, Colorado, Illinois, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island. The federal mandate for sales from licensed dealers covers almost 80% of gun sales while leaving open loopholes for gun sales at trade shows, online, or through unlicensed dealers. Lying on a federal background check law is a felony punishable with up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

A background check may turn up criminal history and mental health issues that could prevent a person from purchasing a firearm. That said, there is no federal law forcing states to report identities of individuals with mental health issues to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database that is utilized by the FBI for background checks.

[Pictured: House Democrats discuss Bipartisan Background Checks Legislation in Washington, DC.]

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