The Washington Post

The AP Style Guide to Election Cliches

Here’s an event! Note the conspicuous absence of stumps. (Conrad Schmidt/AP)

Given my initials, I took the liberty of updating it. Here, with reverence and apologies, adapted directly from the actual AP guide’s list of verboten cliches, is The AP Style Guide to Election Cliches.


ahead of — a long, long time ago; ’ere; lo these many years ago.

rainbow colors — don’t use any of these namby-pamby crayon hues to describe how states feel about politics. There are no red states or blue states. This isn’t Mars. Or Neptune. Instead, say things like “California, rife with godless liberals” or “Texas, which orders all its textbooks via special delivery from the 19th century.”

barnstormed — NEVER use this word. This is something Lindbergh used to do. Say “went from one side of a state to another, probably in some sort of bus.” If that is too unwieldy, go for “bus-rode-across” or “waved through.”

hand-to-hand campaigning — honestly, I have never heard this expression used by anyone, but I guess the AP and I move in different circles. Instead, try “voter-fencing.”

hat in the ring — “formed an exploratory committee to consider the negligible possibility of running for some office.”

horse race — don’t use this for close contests. Instead, try “Hunger Games.” Example: “Boy, that Ohio Senate race is a real Hunger Games. I think Rob Portman just lost a leg!”

laundry list — even people who actually do laundries do not make lists anymore. Try “array of proposals” or “variety of entrancing, shiny lies” if you work for that kind of publication or have had a tough week.

messaging — “bill of goods” or “stuff campaign is attempting to push over on you.” Also, there has not been a “messaging failure.” There are no “messaging failures.” Instead, try “incident after which [Employee Name] will not work in this town again.”

pressing the flesh — the AP says “shaking hands” is better, but that is only because the AP has never heard the phrase “rubbing meat-mitts” or “slapping the wrist-salamander.”

rope line — what rope line? There ought to be better security at this event. Try “touched the babies of some people who had been through several metal detectors.”

state nicknames — never use these. They embarrass the states. No one actually knows that the Peace Garden State is North Dakota. They think it’s a band that disbanded in the late ’70s. And poor North Dakota has enough trouble as it is being mistaken for South Dakota, given the generally held belief that all Dakota states look the same.

stump speech — do not use this unless there is an actual stump visible in the vicinity. It’s rude to stumps to assume that they show up any time someone makes a routine campaign stop.

testing the waters — “conducting a boatload of polls to see if this is a good idea.”

took his/her campaign to — “straggled into town looking much the worse for wear” or “arrived in triumph preceded by spoils,” depending.

veepstakes — something used to put the roving, unquiet souls of veeps to rest, generally in combination with garlic.

war lingo — the AP warns against words like “attacked” and “launch an assault, take aim, open fire, bombard,” pointing out that their use makes it difficult for the public to tell if the candidate has actually launched rags dipped in oil and then set them on fire at the battlements of his opponent or merely insinuated that his opponent has changed his position on veteran services. But if anyone charges at his opponent wielding a mace or crossbow, do not hesitate to say so.

war chest — “doubloon hoard” or “[Name of Major Donor] pocketbook.”

white paper — “vague PDF about some issue that can be summarized in the phrase ‘I don’t know, okay? Elect us and we’ll figure something out,’ and which maybe two guys who work at the Atlantic will read but everyone will insist is what the campaign is really about.” If this is too long, use “important-sounding PDF.”

The AP concludes with the advice to get lots of quotes from real voters and “rely on polls sparingly. Determine whether an opinion survey is reliable before including it.”

Do the opposite of this, and you should be fine.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Sleep advice you won't find in baby books
In defense of dads
Scenes from Brazil's Carajás Railway
Play Videos
For good coffee, sniff, slurp and spit
How to keep your child safe in the water
How your online data can get hijacked
Play Videos
How to avoid harmful chemicals in school supplies
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
How much can one woman eat?
Play Videos
What you need to know about Legionnaires' disease
How to get organized for back to school
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom