How Does a Caucus Work?

The presidential election process is more complicated than you may think. It requires candidates to campaign and compete in different phases to get their party's nomination before the general election.

Presidential nominations occur through caucuses, primary elections, and state conventions. Some states, like Washington, use a combination of caucuses and primaries to nominate their desired candidate.

This article provides an in-depth explanation of caucuses in the United States. It answers frequently asked questions about caucuses. It also describes the differences between caucuses and primaries. For more information about voting, browse FindLaw's Voting section.

What Is a Caucus?

In the United States, state governments generally have the power to enact their own election laws and procedures. Accordingly, a few states use caucuses to select their candidates.

A caucus is simply a meeting where party members gather by district, precinct, or county. At the caucus, they discuss and ultimately decide their preferred presidential nominee. You generally cannot participate in a major political party's caucus unless you have registered as part of that political party.

Technically, the participants do not nominate the candidate. Instead, they elect delegates. These delegates act as their representative in the next round of party conventions.

The delegates ultimately select the party's presidential nominees. After the presidential primaries and caucuses, the Democrat and Republican parties hold national conventions to select their presidential nominees. There, the convention delegates select a party's presidential nominees.

When Do Caucuses Occur?

Caucuses occur from January to June of an election year. However, caucus debates begin in the summer before an election year and last through the spring of an election year.

The United States holds presidential elections every four years. The process of choosing presidential candidates begins in the year before an election year. Therefore, caucuses usually occur about halfway through the nomination process.

Visit USA.gov for a complete overview of the presidential election cycle.

What Happens at Caucuses?

The specific caucus procedures vary depending on the states and the political parties involved. This section describes the general process at a state caucus.

In Democrat caucuses, voters form groups according to the candidate they support. The undecided voters will form an "uncommitted" group. Participants stand in designated areas to show their support.

In Republican caucuses, participants cast votes for the candidate they support.

Activists and selected proponents of candidates will speak on behalf of their selected candidate. Their goal is to sway other attendees to join them. Candidates may also speak to the caucus participants.

The groups will also discuss various issues and ideas they support. If an idea gets enough support, it will continue to future caucuses, state conventions, and the national convention. Groups may also choose organizers who will coordinate future political activities in the area.

The ultimate goal of a caucus is to send delegates to larger caucuses in the future. Hundreds of delegates attend the national convention.

If you have questions about your state's caucus system or procedure, contact the political party holding the caucus.

Is There a Difference Between Democratic and Republican Caucuses?

Yes. The Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention govern how their caucuses and presidential nominations operate. This section uses the Iowa Caucus to describe the differences between the parties' caucuses.

Republican Caucuses in Iowa

Republicans cast votes for the presidential candidate they support. Iowa selects Republican delegates based on which candidates received the most votes.

Democratic Caucuses in Iowa

Democrats form groups and hold a count. Candidates in the Democratic Party must get at least 15% of the tally to stay in the race. Once a group has at least 15% of the tally, the participants fill out and turn in a presidential preference card. The participants cannot vote again, and they can leave the caucus.

Participants can move to another group if a group does not reach 15%. The caucus only allows one realignment. Candidates receiving at least 15% of the total tally are considered "viable" and proceed to the next caucus.

Viable candidates will receive a share of delegates proportional to the share of their supporters.

What Is the Difference Between Primaries and Caucuses?

Both the presidential primaries and caucuses serve the same purpose: selecting delegates. However, the procedures vary significantly. The table below summarizes the difference between the two:

Caucus Primaries
Involve private events that state political parties finance and organize The state finances and organizes primaries.
Voting occurs after candidates and/or their representatives make speeches to persuade voters to vote for them. They are like general elections; voters cast secret ballots for their chosen candidate.
Voting is either public or private, depending on the party. Voting is anonymous and private.
Voting in a caucus takes time because the voters typically listen to speeches or persuasive arguments before voting. Voting in a primary is relatively fast.
Caucuses require voters to arrive at a specific time on caucus day. A person can vote at any time during election day.

 

Where Are Caucuses Held and Who Organizes Them?

Public sites typically host caucuses, such as:

  • Town halls
  • School gyms
  • Libraries
  • Churches
  • Private homes

Political parties organize caucuses.

Can I Vote for the Nominee Even if I Am Not a Registered Member of That Party?

It depends on the type of caucus your state follows. Caucuses are generally closed. This means you can only participate if you register as a member of that political party.

However, some caucuses are "open" or "mixed." If your state uses "open caucuses," you may participate in any caucuses despite your party affiliation. So, you should first refer to the type of caucus held in your state.

Why Is the Iowa Caucus Significant?

It's the first caucus. Therefore, it is a good indicator of which presidential candidate is leading the race. It shows who has run an effective campaign and who the voters support.

Other Resources

You may find the following links helpful as you learn more about voting in the United States:

For more information, consider visiting FindLaw's Voting section.

Contact an Attorney

Every eligible citizen has a right to take part in the election process. Do you feel someone has deprived you of your right to vote? If so, consult with a civil rights attorney to protect your right to vote.

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