It's the start of the presidential election season in the US again. In several news articles I have read this week, the phrase "political calculus" has been used. This must be an acceptable phrasing for several publications' style guides or as jargon in the domain of political science, but this particular sense is not explicit in dictionaries, and I find the meaning when I read it to be indistinct and slippery. My inclination is to substitute "calculation" and consider it jargon or flowery language except this doesn't always fit.

What exactly does "political calculus" mean?

Prior research

The earlier question on this site for calculus answers "calculation" can be interchanged with "calculus" but doesn't go deeper into the "political calculus" phrase

Urban Dictionary is the only internet search result to return the phrase "political calculus", all other sources just list "calculus". I'm not convinced by the single UD definition.

For example:

  1. Slate.com: "That means that if the court agrees to take an abortion case right at the heart of primary season, it could be setting up the issue as a big fat loser for the GOP. Far be it from me to suggest that the justices take that kind of political calculus into account when planning their election-year dockets, but do the court’s conservatives really want to use this fall to force GOP candidates to own the worst anti-choice stereotypes?"

"Calculation" fits

  1. Rolling Stone: "Cuomo's administration is sufficiently impenetrable that those trying to deduce his motivations are often reduced to a sort of Kremlinology of guesswork and tea-leaf scrutiny, but no one questions his strong sense of which way the wind is blowing. "The governor wakes up and looks at the political calculus, and sees if there's a need to do something," says a New York political operative who spoke on condition of anonymity."

"Calculation" doesn't work as a straight substitution. I read this as Cuomo is looking at the polling values. Maybe it's just an awkward quotation, implying if he makes a decision, then the polling will improve, by some calculation Cuomo is estimating. But if the idea is that if the polling is below a threshold, he must take an action, I don't see the calculation unless "if..then" Boolean logic is covered by the phrase.

  1. Financial Times: "Analysts and investors disagree, however, on just how far the rot will reach. What Puerto Rican debts may have to be restructured, and how deep the pain will be, is an extremely complex financial, legal and political calculus that has led big-name investors down differing paths."

"Calculation" mostly fits, but it seems "decision" or "process" might be more direct.

  1. National Journal: "On the other, it could be tough for Hoyer to vote against the vast majority of his caucus's members—members whose votes he'll need should he run to be their leader someday. Hoyer says this political calculus plays no part in his thinking. "My vote's going to be made on the substance of what I believe, not on any ramifications that it might have," he said in a Tuesday sit-down with reporters."

As a sentence, "calculation" flows, but it seems too precise unless the calculation could encompass calculating an entire statistical distribution (which, maybe it should?).

  1. The NY Times has a blog byline titled Political Calculus

A blog titled "Calculation" would probably not get as much click traffic. Should I just consider this embellishment?

  • What is your question? Political calculation vs political calculus?
    – user66974
    Jun 18, 2015 at 14:31
  • The OED has an entry for calculus (admittedly marked obs) which defines it as a synonym for computation or calculation: "Computation, calculation Obs. 1684 T. Burnet Theory of Earth i. 166 Suppose the abyss was but half as deep as the deep ocean, to make this calculus answer, all the dry land ought to be cover'd with mountains.".
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 18, 2015 at 14:53
  • 1
    calculus: a particular method or system of calculation or reasoning. (ODO) 4. a system or arrangement of intricate or interrelated parts (MW) I think the preference for calculus over calculations is natural: 1) it being a less common, "fancier" word; 2) it treating the art of politics as if it were a branch of science; 3) it referring to mathematics which deals with the complexities of variables and their rates of change.
    – choster
    Jun 18, 2015 at 15:04
  • Calculus is the Latin word for 'pebble'; pebbles were what you moved back and forth on an abacus (Latin for 'counting board') which was just a sand table. Calculation was what Roman engineers did with pebbles on the abacus -- pushing symbols around in an algorithmic way until they form in a way we didn't know before. From that there are other calculi, all doing the same thing -- Propositional Calculus (truth tables), Quantified Predicate Calculus (sentence meanings), differential and Integral calculus, calculus of errors, etc. Not all involve differentiation or integration. Jun 18, 2015 at 15:18
  • 1
    @Janus Bahs Jacquet - would that these little stones were big boulders.
    – user98990
    Jun 19, 2015 at 12:17

3 Answers 3


Political calculus refers to calculation or reasoning of a specifically political nature and means to make evaluations and decisions which are primarily based upon politically expedient considerations, rather then and as opposed to all other considerations (i.e., reality, principle, moral, ethical). Political “calculus” carries well the additional connotation of behavior that is “calculating.”

consideration noun: 1. careful thought, typically over a period of time. "a long process involving a great deal of careful consideration"; synonyms: thought, deliberation, reflection, contemplation, rumination; see, Google

calculating adjective: acting in a scheming and ruthlessly determined way. "he was a coolly calculating, ruthless man"; synonyms: cunning, crafty, wily, shrewd, sly, scheming, devious, designing, conniving, Machiavellian; see, Google

  • 1
    Yes, as the term is commonly used expediency is a major factor in "political calculus".
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 18, 2015 at 19:12

Political calculus is the premeditated - whether conscious or unconscious - estimation of personal benefit or gain from the support, or lack thereof, of public policy positions.


Political calculus is predicting how people will vote, usually en masse, and usually in response to a particular policy or in terms of a general election. For example, http://politicalcalculus.co.uk/homepage.html is a well-known (int the UK) website that processes data to make predictions about the results of General Elections. In the US, Nate Silver is one of the leading exponents.

  • 1
    Predicting how people will vote is one, but far from the only or primary, sense of the term Political calculus.
    – user98990
    Jun 19, 2015 at 12:20
  • I disagree. You are confusing political calculation with political calculus. They mean different things.
    – ThomasDoe
    Jun 20, 2015 at 9:34

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