How Is a Caucus Different From a Primary? Your Definitive Guide

It's one of the most confusing practices in politics (and that's saying something).

Patriotic Voting Hands
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Dating back to the 1800s, caucuses used to be the main system for nominating presidential candidates. Since 1968, states have moved toward the better-known primary elections instead of caucuses, but these “meeting of neighbors,” or so they're called, still occur nationwide—and can influence elections in a major way.

If you're someone who nods away when you hear your co-workers talk about a caucus (cough), pretending to know what on earth they actually are, nod no more! Here’s everything you need to know about this tricky but important voting practice.

So, What Is A Presidential Caucus?

Let’s start with the basics: Before a wannabe-president can win the general election and become HBIC, they have to be voted as the official nominee by their political party. To do this, the candidate has to beat out all of the other contenders within their political party by winning the favor of voters.

Consider The Bachelor: contestants continually get booted until two finalists remain. In our case, the final two standing are one Republican and one Democratic candidate, who campaign for the presidency (instead of some boring dude’s heart). The Republican and Democratic candidate is decided is via one of two ways: A primary election, or a caucus.

Go On…

A caucus is a communal event that helps states decide which candidate they want as their party nominee. It’s an open meeting, which takes place in a public venue, like a school gym or town hall, where registered voters of a given political party talk about their candidates and ultimately pick who they want to support.

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Each state is divided into precincts, each of which holds their own caucus. For example, in Iowa’s 2016 election there was 1,681 precincts, so there were 1,681 caucuses going down in the Hawkeye State. Just like a primary election, the purpose of the caucus is to pick the candidate the precinct supports and select delegates (representatives of party members in each state) to vote for that pick at the National Convention. Depending on the state, party, and precinct population, a varying amount of delegates are chosen, but the job is the same: They represent the vote on behalf of the people caucusing.

What Happens Once You’re Inside?

Dems and Republicans do things a little differently, but the process starts the same for both: A group gathers to discuss the candidates. This conversation can last hours, normally between one to two hours. Republicans are quicker than Democrats: Republicans cast secret ballot votes on paper for their preferred nominee. The votes are counted, and delegates are awarded. The delegates then will vote for the winning candidate at the National Convention, to nominate them for President.

At a Democratic caucus, attendees physically group in areas of the room to show support for their desired candidates (a practice called aligning) after hearing pitches for each one. During that 30-minute alignment period, people can travel to other "preference groups" and try to convince them to switch their allegiance. If one particular preference group does not meet the minimum amount of support (usually 15 percent of the total attendees of the caucus), the attendees must move to another group, or remain undecided. At the end of the period, delegates are distributed proportionally among the preference groups.

Again, there are some variations in policies depending on your state or political party, but in general this is how it goes down.

When Does A Caucus Happen?

Caucuses happen in the February or March before the presidential election. The day differs depending on the state. The first (and most famous) caucus belongs to Iowa—in 2020, it will occur on February 3.

What’s The Difference Between The Primaries And Caucuses?

Primaries are run by state governments and operate like a ballot general election, where you vote for your favorite candidate any time during election day. Caucuses are run by state political parties and occur at a specific time on caucus day. In a primary election, your vote is secret and solitary. In a democratic caucus, your vote is public.

What States Have Caucuses?

In 2016’s election, 13 states and 2 U.S. territories held caucus elections. States can have both—for example, if one party uses a caucus system and the other uses a primary system.

Anything Else I Need To Know?

Caucus voter turnout is notoriously low—partially because the process takes time, and because it can be a confusing process. In the 2016 election, every caucus state except Idaho had lower than 16 percent voter turnout.

Once you understand the process and devote the time, a caucus can be a great opportunity for political engagement, to learn more about your candidates, and make your voice heard.

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