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Roe v Wade, Obamacare and Super PACs: US election terms explained

Blue State or Red State, No Child Left Behind and Grover Norquist. What do these terms mean and who are these people? explains…

JUST UNDER SEVEN months to go until America goes to the polls in the presidential election choosing between incumbent Barack Obama and the presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

If you have even a passing interest in American politics then you will no doubt have heard many different terms bandied about from No Child Left Behind to Roe v Wade. But what do they all mean?

Seeing as you might start hearing them more and more as the campaign to be one of the most powerful men in the world progresses, has deciphered some of the terms you will be hearing and explained them as simply as we can. (If there’s any we’ve missed, do let us know in the comments).

The groups

“Mitt Romney essentially secured the GOP presidential nomination last week…”

G-O-what now?

GOP stands for Grand Old Party and is the alternative name for the Republican Party, even though the Democratic Party is actually older. The party was originally formed by disillusioned members of the Democratic Party. As well as the Republican Party, the new party was initially known in some quarters as the Gallant Old Party before this soon became Grand Old Party, and then just plain GOP.

“The PAC is among the top 20 in the nation…”


PAC stands for Political Action Committee and is basically any organisation that campaigns for or against political candidates or particular legislation. An organisation becomes a PAC on a national level when it receives more than $1,000 in donations. They exist to allow a means for individuals, corporation employees, trade union members or anyone to donate money towards candidates in a way they cannot do directly as donations are capped at a $2,500.  You can donate double this to PACs per year and they can use the money to campaign on behalf of a particular candidate.

“The super PAC helmed by former top Romney campaign officials…”

What’s so super about them?

Super Political Action Committees are a spin-off of the PAC and as we explained last month are of particular relevance to the current presidential campaign. A Supreme Court ruling in 2010 allowed for Super PACs to raise unlimited sums of money from unions and corporations. While these Super PACs cannot contribute to campaigns and are technically not in any way supposed to be affiliated with campaigns they can campaign on behalf of certain candidates and issues. And as we saw in the Republican nominating contest, this had a sizeable impact on the eventual outcome.

The electoral process

“FEC filings show the candidate claims to …”


This is the Federal Election Commission whose job it is to administer and enforce the Federal Elections Campaign Act which governs how campaigns are financed. An independent, regulatory agency it is divided along party lines with no more than three members of the same party allowed on the commission. It has six members appointed by the President and confirmed by the US senate and faces regular regular criticism for being ‘toothless’ and enforcing fines for a breach in campaign finance law months, even years after the election in which they were committed.

“The caucuses seem sure to be even more sparsely attended…”

Like in Russia?

No, this is the way in which citizens can outline their preference for a particular candidate in a less formal procedure than a vote. A caucus varies from state to state but the most crucial of all is the first state in the country to hold a poll – Iowa. As we explained earlier this year, the caucus there involves anyone who is registered with a party showing up at a caucus meeting organised by that party in places like town halls and listening to a representative of the candidate offer reasons as to why they should  support them.

In the case of the Republicans, attendees then write down their preference on a piece of paper and votes are counted. For Democrats, it’s a little different as attendees gather into groups depending on their choice of candidate. This handy explainer from Sky News’ Jeremy Thompson from the 2008 elections should help:

“Less than five weeks to go before the primary election…”

Primary as in the first election?

Sort of. This is a more procedural version of a caucus that is common across US politics from national to local level where parties hold open voting contests on every candidate that decides to run for that party’s nomination to the general election. The US is one of the few countries in the world that nominates party candidates through an election as opposed to party leaders vetting them. In some states there are open primaries where every citizen can vote, others have closed primaries where only registered party members can vote.

“Any attempt to gather more delegates…”

Delegating what?

Delegates are chosen to represent their states at national party conventions. Both of the main parties in the US have assigned a number of delegates to each state which can differ depending on the party. Delegates determined by the decision of the voters in that state on who to nominate during the primary process. Some delegates are assigned proportionate to the percentage of the vote a candidate receives, others are assigned on a winner takes all basis. The candidate who reaches a certain threshold of delegates – 1,144 in the case of Romney - secures that party’s nomination.

“Superdelegates around the country..”

That word super again…

Superdelegates are defined as any elected or party officials. They account for a fifth of overall delegates and are not bound by the decision of any state like the ordinary delegates. They can support whoever the want at the national convention, generally rowing in behind the consensus candidate. Speaking of which…

“They are expected to get a prime spot on the floor of the convention…”

Like a Star Wars convention?

No, the presidential nominating convention is held every four years in the US by most political parties who will field candidates in the presidential election. They are essentially like a party conference or ard fheis where various party members address delegates before a formal nominating process takes place and the candidate who is nominated addresses the convention. In most cases these days the nominee is determined before the convention but at the Republican National Convention in 1976 Ronald Reagan almost took the nomination from incumbent president Gerald Ford, as this video explains:

YouTube: huckreport

“…victory in the Electoral College this fall…”

College elections?

Nope. This is the system by which a US president is elected. Each state, and the District of Columbia (Washington DC), appoints a number of electors who formally decide which presidential candidate that state is voting for. How many electors each state has is dependent on its number of senators (always two) and congressmen or women (proportional to population).

Voters select the electors who are pledging to vote for the candidate they want. The elector’s name may or may not appear on the ballot below the name of the actual candidate running for president depending on the state. Electors are on a winner takes all basis except in the states of Maine and Nebraska. There are a total of 538 electors which means that the first candidate to reach 270 electoral college votes wins the presidency .

“But whether from red, blue, or purple states…”

Colour-coded states?

This refers to which way a state usually votes in the presidential election. The term was first coined during the controversial 2000 presidential election. Red states are those who predominantly vote Republican while blue states refer to those who predominantly vote Democrat. In such cases, red states would be considered more conservative than the more liberal blue states.

Then there are the purple (red and blue combined, geddit?) or swing states which go either way and are where candidates spend much of their time targeting votes. In recent years states like Ohio and Florida have been crucial. Most famously in 2000 it was so close in Florida that the decision to award it and its crucial electoral college votes to George W Bush went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The policies and issues

“The bill… would have run afoul of Roe v. Wade…”

Who’s Roe? Who’s Wade?

This refers to a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court in 1973 on the controversial issue of abortion. The ruling said that a woman, in consultation with her doctor, could choose to have an abortion in the early months of pregnancy, without restriction and with restrictions in later months, based on the right to privacy.

The court ruling effectively struck down the right of states and the federal government to restrict abortion in the US. The decision prompted a national debate in the US that continues to divide along party lines with most if not all Republicans being pro-life (ant-abortion) while many Democrats are pro-choice (pro-abortion).

“Over two years since Obamacare was signed into law…”

Who’s Barack caring for?

This is the nickname given to incumbent president Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare legislation enacted in 2010 – the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) – which mandates that any individual not covered by an employer or government sponsored health insurance plan must maintain minimum essential health insurance or else face fines – a so-called individual mandate.

The idea is that healthcare coverage is extended to the over 40 million Americans who do not have any at all. The act also reforms certain elements of the healthcare insurance industry with the aim of increasing coverage for those who have pre-existing medical conditions. It increases spending on medical provision in the US and is extremely controversial as many Republicans want to repeal it.

The law is currently before the Supreme Court which is considering four crucial elements of the act which were argued by lawyers for both sides in March. The ruling, expected in June, could essentially reverse the legislation. Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has said he will repeal the healthcare law if the Supreme Court does not.

Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law in March 2010 (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/Press Association Images)

“Expenditure on social security benefits increased…”


This is the social insurance programme for pensioners, social welfare recipients and those with disabilities. It is funded primarily through payroll taxes and is the largest government programme in the world, accounting for over a fifth of expenditure in the US federal budget. It is particularly contentious because of this huge outlay. While Republicans would look to cut entitlements, Democrats want to preserve or increase them.

Funding for the programme is expected to be exhausted in 2033 as retirements accelerate. As Reuters reported recently this does not mean that benefits cannot be paid out but rather that the way it is funded may need to be adjusted by increasing payroll taxes. But the last thing Republicans want to do is increase payroll taxes. That puts them in an ideological battle with Democrats but either way both parties will have to come up with credible ways to ‘solve’ Social Security in the coming years and neither appears to have done that so far.

“But when No Child Left Behind was passed 11 years ago…”

Left behind what?

Like Obamacare this was perhaps the single biggest piece of legislation enacted by George W Bush during his time as president. The law requires states to develop basic skills in literacy and math and then assess students on those skills at selected grade levels in order to receive federal funding for educating. States, not the federal government dictate what those standards are though the legislation has massively increased the role of federal government in public education.

The law has been widely criticised for focusing on sanctioning states that do not meet standards as opposed to holding authorities responsible and accountable for implementing changes in standards of education. President Obama has proposed reform that would see a wider range of skills assessed such as research and communication skills. He also given some states waivers from having to reach No Child Left Behind requirements that were mandated in order to receive funding. But there is a general argument about how much the federal government should play a role in public education, an argument which divides Republicans and Democrats.

The people

“…they say is funded by the Koch Brothers…”

Like the Marx brothers?

Nope. Charles and David Koch (Pronounced: ‘Coke’) are renowned for their sizeable donations to conservative and libertarian groups in particular groups which advocate less government and are primarily against the policies of the Obama administration as a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer in 2010 detailed. The Kochs were particularly upset by this article but freely acknowledge that they give hundreds of millions of dollars to right wing causes in the US making their influence in areas such as oil, gas and chemical industries – from which they derive their fortune – and free enterprise pretty significant.

“George Soros made a rare public appearance…”

George who?

If the Republicans have the Koch Brothers, then the Democrats have George Soros – who heads the hedge fund Soros Fund Management. He once said that the central focus of his life was to remove George W Bush from the White House. He has donated millions of dollars to Democrats and groups devoted to defeating Bush at the 2004 election. He has also donated to groups that advocate greater spending on infrastructure in America and the legalisation of marijuana.

“… it helps to have none other than Grover Norquist come…”

Sounds like a Scandinavian dog…

Norquist is actually the founder and president of a group called Americans for Tax Reform which is best known for its ‘Taxpayer Protection Pledge’ which has been signed by the vast majority of Republican congressmen and perhaps most importantly the presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The pledge states simply that the signer “opposes any and all efforts to increase marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses … and oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rate.”

If you’ve read all the way to here then you won’t be surprised to learn that this sets up Republicans on a fairly obvious collision course with Democrats who would look to increase taxes in order to provide for greater spending on government programmes.

But tax is just one of many issues, as detailed above, that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are likely to spar over between now and November’s election.

Meet the candidates: Who will Mitt Romney pick as his running mate?

Explainer: The ‘Super PAC’ and how it’s changing US elections forever

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