The Complete List of Election and Campaign Vocabulary for the TOEFL & ESL Classroom

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Advanced Election Vocabulary Made Easy for the TOEFL

History and politics frequently make appearances on all sections of the TOEFL.  While the election for the Presidency only occurs every 4 years in the United States, elections at the federal, state, and local levels take place on the first Tuesday of November each year.  Whether you want to brush up on these terms for test day or you simply want to be more versed on current events, these words are must-know.  (Keep reading all the way to bottom to make sure you anticipate exactly where you will find them on the test). 

Because there are so many terms, don't try to memorize them in a random or alphabetical list.  Give the terms some context by seeing them grouped with similar term


The Big List of Election Vocabulary By Category


Words related to the election process:  

Those interested in running for office (known as candidates) for public office will seek election for a term (set period of time-- in the US, a President serves for a 4 year term, with a two-term limit)  by delivering stump speeches (standard, rehearsed speeches delivered again and again to multiple audiences) in order to make voters aware of their platform (the formal set of principal goals that he/she stands for) with the hope of increasing voter turnout (the amount of people who come out to vote--voting is not legally required in the United States) and convincing swing voters to cast their ballots in their favor come Election Day 

Words related to the people involved:

An incumbent is a person who currently holds that office.  This is widely considered an advantage.  The candidate taking this person on is known as the challenger.  You may also see the word nominee-- the person who is selected to represent his/her party in an official capacity.  A campaign manager is an official advisor to the person running for public office.  The person who wins is often allowed to make appointments of those who have helped them during the campaign to positions of prominence within the administration.  At the presidential level, the highest positions are those within the president's cabinet--his/her official inner circle and closest advisors.  The members of the electoral college are those that make the official decision as to which candidate will be selected as president as the United States does not follow a strictly popular vote model.  The running mate is the candidate selected for the lesser of two closely associated political offices (usually used to talk about the Vice Presidential nominee).  A front-runner is a person that is most likely to win the election while a dark horse is a candidate (or competitor) that little is known about and does unexpectedly well

Words related to being partial/impartial:

Words like progressive or conservative or the official party names like Democrat or Republic are often used to indicate that someone has strong and public ties to one parties beliefs and affiliations.  The word bias means that someone favors one group over another unapologetically.  Politics in the United States is notoriously partisan.  Gerrymandering is the controversial practice of manipulating voting boundaries in order to help one side or the other.  

Words related to negative campaigning:

The highly partisan nature of American politics means that often candidates will resort to mudslinging (the use of unjust or unwarranted insults and accusations) and attack ads (an advertisement designed to wage a personal attack on the other candidate).  Propaganda is the material that is viewed as biased or misleading and is designed to promote a particular political point of view.  Spin is a type of propaganda designed to sway or persuade public opinion to see an issue, event, or public figure in a particular light

Words related to money:

While you might encounter phrases related to how the candidate plans to spend money if elected (like taxes, budget, and deficit), canvas and war chest are used to refer to how much money the candidate has raised (through fundraising efforts like canvassing) and how much the candidate has left (in the war chest).

Words related to the voting process and the outcome:

A straw poll is an unofficial ballot conducted to test public opinion.  Absentee voting is a ballot completed by mail in advance of the election because the voter cannot go to vote at his/her polling place in person the day of the election.  Electronic voting refers to voting using electronic means to cast votes (like a computerized machine).  Ballot just means a process of voting, typically in writing and in secret.  Journalists and politicians may conduct exit polls in order to try to determine who has won before the official ballot count has been tallied.  If the race is tight, a journalist may report that it is too close to call.   With a slim margin, one party may call for a recount to make sure that the tally is correct.  If the race is very one-sided, it will be referred to as a landslide.

Elections and Exams: How Elections Show Up on the TOEFL


Election vocabulary can show up on any of the 4 sections of the test.  As politicians have historically been important public figures, biographies of politicians are quite common on the reading section of the exam.  They are also similarly found in lectures delivered by professors n the Listening section.                   

Biographies are not the only types of texts that feature the vocabulary found prominently on Election Day.  While campaigns are frequently used to talk about political campaigns, a business class might have a discussion about a marketing campaign or a psychology class might feature a talk about why certain candidates are perceived to be likable (or unlikeable).  The aftermath of an election or the causes for a certain election outcome can also become passage topics.

Student government is very common at American universities, and as a result, you may even see these words in campus situations like Speaking Question 3.  In Speaking Question 3, you will read a passage that makes an announcement about something that is happening on campus and then you will hear a student voice his/her opinion on the subject.  The student council may be in charge of this message or the school might be launching a campaign to get student interest or involvement in a particular issue.

Perhaps the most common place to see these vocabulary words is on the writing section of the TOEFL.  Of course, you might see an independent essay question related to elections-- like what qualities should a leader of a nation have--but more likely, you will see integrated essay questions that feature topics related to elections.  Subjects here could include what types of voting should certain countries use (electronic, computerized mail in, etc.), what methods of campaigning should or shouldn't be legal, what caused a particular candidate to win/lose.

There are many excellent online resources to find passages to help you practice with election day vocabulary.  The New York Times Room for Debate section features passages that can easily be turned into integrated essay practice on topics ranging from how, if at all, Election Day should evolve to the future of the electoral college to social media and selfie culture's impact on voter turnout and casting ballots.  Take practice to the listening section with Ted Talks on the struggles that come with a country's first election  or think about the relationship between gender and public office with this lecture.

Key Takeaways


Campaign and election vocabulary is a likely candidate to make an appearance on the TOEFL.  Become familiar with these important terms ahead of time so your score can turn out the way you want it to.

Want to practice now?  Get the free election independent essay pack.

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