Idioms Used in Elections

Prepare students for the language of political campaigns

election vote buttons next to a straw hat
"Throw One's Hat in the Ring" and other political idioms.

Charles Mann / Getty Images

Politicians are always campaigning. They run campaigns to get votes to win political office and do the same to stay in office. It does not matter if the politician is running for local, state, or federal office, a politician is always communicating with the voters, and much of that communication is in the language of campaigns.

In order to understand what a politician is saying, however, students might need to become familiar with campaign vocabulary. Explicit teaching of election terms is important for all students, but it's particularly important with English language learners. That is because campaign vocabulary is filled with idioms, which means a word or phrase that is not taken literally.

For example, the idiomatic phrase "to throw one's hat in the ring, means:

"Announce one's candidacy or enter a contest, as in 'The governor was slow to throw his hat in the ring in the senatorial
race.'"
"This term comes from boxing, where throwing a hat in the ring
indicated a challenge; today the idiom nearly always refers to political candidacy."

Strategies for Teaching Idioms

Some of the political idioms would confuse any student, so using the following six strategies may be helpful. Provide these election idioms in context. Have students find examples of idioms in speeches or campaign materials.

Stress that idioms are most often used in the spoken form. Help students to understand that idioms are conversational, rather than formal. Have students practice the idioms by creating sample conversations that they can share to help them understand. For example, take the following dialogue featuring the idiom “political hot potato” in school:

"Jack: I have to write my top two issues that I would like to debate. For one of the issues, I am thinking of choosing internet privacy. Some politicians see this issue as a 'political hot potato.'"
"Jane: Mmmmm. I love hot potatoes. Is that what's on the menu for lunch?"
"Jack: No, Jane, a 'political hot potato' is an issue that can be so sensitive that those taking a stand on the issue could risk being embarrassed."

Political Idioms

Explain how each word in an idiom may have a different meaning than what is meant in the whole idiomatic phrase. Take, for example, the term "convention bounce," which consists of two terms:

"Convention: A meeting or formal assembly, as of representatives or delegates, for discussion of and action on particular matters of common concern."
"Bounce: A sudden spring or leap."

A convention bounce is generally described as the bump or boost in poll numbers that a candidate for office, often for president, receives after their national or state convention. It is also called a "convention bump," as Tom Holbrook's website Politics By the Numbers explains:

"The convention bump is measured as the percentage point change in the convening party's share of the two-party vote, comparing polls taken between six days and two weeks prior to the convention with polls taken during the seven days following the convention."

Teachers should be aware that some of the idiomatic vocabulary is also cross-disciplinary. For example, "personal appearance" can refer to a person's wardrobe and demeanor, but in the context of an election, it means "an event that a candidate attends in person."

Covering five to 10 idioms at a time is ideal. Long lists will confuse students; not all idioms are necessary to understand the election process.

Student Collaboration

Encourage student collaborations in studying idioms, and use the following strategies:

  • Ask students to discuss idioms with one another.
  • Ask students to restate the meaning of each idiom in their own words.
  • Ask students to compare their descriptions of an idiom.
  • Have students explain to each other any new information they have learned about the idioms.
  • Find any areas of disagreement or confusion and help clarify.
  • Have students can make revisions to their own work. (Let students whose primary existing knowledge base is still in their native language to write in it.)

Use idioms in teaching the election process. Teachers can use specific examples (exemplification) with what students know in order to teach some of the vocabulary. For example, the teacher may write on the board, “The candidate stands by his record.” Students may then say what they think the term means. The teacher can discuss with the students the nature of a candidate's record ("something is written down" or "what a person says"). This will help students understand how the context of the word "record" is more specific in an election:

"A list showing a candidate's or elected official's voting history (often in relation to a specific issue)"

Once they understand the meaning of the word, students can research a particular candidate's record in the news or on websites such as Ontheissues.org.

Incorporating Idioms Into the Curriculum

Teaching students the popular idioms used in political campaigns allows teachers the opportunity to incorporate civics into their curriculum. The Social Studies Frameworks for College, Career, and Civic Life (C3s) outlines the requirements teachers must follow to prepare students to participate in a productive constitutional democracy:

"....[student] civic engagement requires knowledge of the history, principles, and foundations of our American democracy, and the ability to participate in civic and democratic processes."

Helping students understand the language of political campaigns makes them better-prepared citizens in the future when they exercise their right to vote.

Idioms on Free Software Platform

One way to help students become familiar with any election year vocabulary is to use the digital platform Quizlet, where teachers can create, copy, and modify vocabulary lists to suit the needs of their students; not all words need to be included. In fact, teachers can find a ready-made list of political election idioms and phrases on the website geared toward grades five through 12.

View Article Sources
  1. Throw One's Hat in the Ring.” The Free Dictionary, Farlex,

  2. Definition of Hot Potato in English." Powered by Oxford Dictionary at Lexico.com.

  3. Convention.” Dictionary.com.

  4. Bounce.” Dictionary.com.

  5. Holbrook, Tom. "Convention Bumps Revisited. " Politics by the Numbers, 10 Aug. 2020.

  6. Voting Record in English.” Voting Record - Meaning and Definition - Dictionarist.com.

  7. OnTheIssues.org - Candidates on the Issues. OnTheIssues.org. 

  8. College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards.” Social Studies, socialstudies.org.

  9. Baumann, Paul. “Just Exactly What Is Civics Education?” Ed Note.

  10. Political Election Idioms and Phrases-2016 Grades 5-12. Quizlet.com.