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What the caucus? Making some sense of the caucuses and primaries

With the Iowa caucuses behind us – and many more ahead until summer - it's worthwhile pausing to better understand the peculiar system of U.S. presidential caucuses and primaries. Here's our attempt to explain these unique, and entertaining, U.S. presidential election rituals.

A curious history

While the procedures for electing the U.S. president are specifically outlined in the U.S. Constitution; the actual nominating process for party candidates is not enshrined in the canons of the founding documents of the United States. In fact, there were no actual political parties per se when the U.S. Constitution was written and signed.

However, the traditions of caucuses (the word itself is said to be from an Algonquin American Indian word) and primaries goes back to the very early years of American democracy and has evolved quite a bit over the years, to become the rather complex and colorful system it is today.

The first caucus was held in 1796 when members of Congress met within their party to discuss nominating a presidential candidate. In the 19th century, these caucus meetings were expanded to the state level and were often dominated by political insiders and “party bosses” within each state. The first party nomination conventions appeared in the 1830’s.

For more than a century, the caucus system was the predominate nominating system and lasted well into the 20th century. It was not until after WWII that primaries began to replace the caucus system in many states, as a means to be more inclusive to party affiliated voters in the general public – a reform partly spurred by the advent of mass media, and its increasing role in presidential electoral politics.

So what’s the difference?

This is where it gets complicated, as under the U.S. Constitution each state has the authority to set its own election laws so long as they meet certain federal requirements. Furthermore, the Republican and Democratic national political parties can set their own rules for each election which influence how the caucuses and/or primaries take place in each state for each election. To make matters even more complex; a state can hold both a caucus for one party, and a primary for another party, or decide not to have either (i.e. the Republic party is not having a caucus in Wyoming or North Dakota in 2016). 

Hence, these processes can be very political, particularly within the parties as the manner in which caucuses and primaries are held can favor or disadvantage a particular candidate.

But for our purposes here, we’ll try to give you the short answer to a direct question:


A primary is a simple ballot system much like a basic election – one voter; one vote.  A voter can cast his, or her, ballot anytime while the voting precinct is open.

However, the primary type can differ state to state. Some states have “closed primaries” and restrict voters to vote only within their party with which they are officially registered, e.g. a registered Democrat cannot vote for a Republican candidate in a primary. Some states offer “open primaries” where a voter registered in one party can vote for a candidate in another party (e.g. New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9).

Other states have a mixed system, only allowing flexibility to registered voters who either have an undeclared affiliation or are stated independents.

Primaries are currently the most commonly used system in the U.S. presidential elections today, although some states have switched back to caucuses (e.g. Nevada in 2008).


A caucus is much more of a public event and interactive. The practice of caucuses can also vary state to state, but in general a caucus follows the following steps:

  1. Voters meet in their community at an appointed time and place, often a school, church, or municipal building near in their neighborhood. Voters must be on time!
  2. Voters group themselves by preferred candidate or in an “undecided” group in separate corners. Voters may openly speak about their preferences for their candidate and can make the case to others why they are voting for them.
  3. Undecided voters are free to join any group. However, a group that forms and does not meet a certain proportionate threshold – 15% in Iowa – must “re-caucus” and join another group, usually of their 2nd preferred candidate.
  4. At the end of the caucus (often 2 hours), a final count is made of each voter in each group.
  5. These numbers are tallied and submitted. Here it can also get complicated as caucus votes can correspond to the number of delegates that will pledge their vote to a candidate under a proportional or “winner take all” system.

One party can choose different caucus rules than the other party, even if both parties hold their caucuses the same day. For example, this year in Iowa the Republican caucus was done by ballot after an appointed representative for each candidate was allowed to speak, whereas the Democratic caucus followed the above process.

Caucuses are not as common as primaries, but quite important as it is the first electoral event in the U.S. presidential elections, taking place in Iowa. The media also loves to cover them as they provide so much political drama and spectacle.


The important difference to note is that the caucus system is very interactive and allows for “activists” to inform and influence the decisions of other voters in a real-time setting. It also creates an opportunity for a voter to initially “change his/her vote” should the original preferred candidate not meet the threshold. This active process makes caucuses much more dynamic, and some might say even fun.

It is also important to note the role states play in the U.S. electoral system in not only election lawmaking, but expressing a type of “state vote” for a candidate. Given the prominence of state power in U.S. federalism, this is fundamental to the nominating process.

And of course it is important to observe how internal party politics can play such an important factor in the nominating process. Depending on the make-up of the national party and its leadership, each presidential primary season can have very different dynamics.

So what about this coin toss in Iowa?

Yes, that did happen! In extremely rare circumstances of ties in caucuses, “games of chance” such as a coin toss are legal and in fact required. However, they are not determinant as to who is the “winner” – since the caucus system corresponds individual “votes” to the number of delegates at the county or state level. It’s best just to provide a link here to explain.

Does all this make sense?

Hopefully the above helped at least summarize the processes involved in the U.S. presidential primary season. It is a uniquely American sui generis process, some might even call an phenomenon. But somehow it all comes together, and in the next few months you can follow this site to learn more about one of the greatest – and convoluted – political races in the world.

….and if you are still scratching your head, this fun video might help, too:


Jason C. Jarrell

Managing Partner and Head of Global Practice | Editor for InterelInsight.US

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