What do coattails have to do with U.S. elections?

You’ll hear American commentators use some strange words to talk about the ins and outs of the U.S. election.

If you hear speculation about Congress flipping as a result of coattail victories and its effect on a lame-duck session of Congress, you might wonder what the heck gymnastics, fashion and fowl have to do with election outcomes.

Here’s a quick primer on these peculiar idioms:

Lame duck

Illustration of duck with bandaged foot walking on crutches (State Dept./D. Thompson)
(State Dept./D. Thompson)

The term “lame duck” refers to an elected official whose successor has already been elected. Such an individual is in a weakened position politically due to the impending expiration of his or her term. A lame-duck session of Congress occurs when Congress meets after the election but before the next Congress, with new members, begins.

Congress flipping

Illustration of large hand flipping U.S. Capitol building like coin (State Dept./D.Thompson)
(State Dept./D.Thompson)

The U.S. Congress is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. In both bodies, whichever party has more members has the majority. If the same party has a majority in both the House and Senate, it “controls” Congress. But if the other party’s candidates can win enough votes in the next election, Congress “flips” and the balance of power changes.


Illustration of politician riding on long coattails of another (State Dept./D.Thompson)
(State Dept./D.Thompson)

The expression “coattails” is an allusion to the rear panels (or “tails”) of a man’s coat. In American politics, it refers to the ability of a popular officeholder or candidate for office, on the strength of his or her own popularity, to increase the chances for victory of other candidates of the same political party. This candidate is said to carry others to victory on his or her coattails.

Graphic reading "Elections 2016" (State Dept./J. Maruszewski)
(State Dept./J. Maruszewski)