What Should I Know About Caucuses?

Sherry Holetzky

During an election, caucuses are often used as a measurement of each candidate’s popularity. Voters get together to decide which candidates should receive the most delegates. This can be a convoluted process.

Particular groups within a legislature, such as senators from a specific geographic region or party, may caucus to discuss shared concerns.
Particular groups within a legislature, such as senators from a specific geographic region or party, may caucus to discuss shared concerns.

While many claim that contests such as the famous Iowa caucuses are the epitome of democracy, others contend that they are in fact a better example of the way politics is played in Washington D.C. They can be somewhat of a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” set up, where last minute deals are often made to garner votes. Various campaigns may even provide childcare, food, or transportation to voters, which some see as a form of bribery. Others see it as just another part of the political process.

Caucuses can be used as a measurement of an election candidate's popularity.
Caucuses can be used as a measurement of an election candidate's popularity.

Unlike a primary election, caucuses don’t have usually have secret ballots. People must physically move to a space in the meeting place, which indicates the candidate they support. Under such a set up, some question whether peer pressure plays a role in the ultimate outcome. If a person is the only one in the room supporting a candidate, it can be intimidating, especially if others work to convince that person to move to their side of the room.

Some caucuses also use a viability option. This allows the party to exclude candidates that receive less than a certain percentage of the support in the room. In Iowa, the Democratic caucuses use such a method, and a candidate generally needs at least 15% to be considered viable. People who support candidates who become excluded are then asked to move to a space that indicates their second preference.

Candidates who are not excluded but barely rise above the required percentage are often persuaded to transfer their votes to another candidate. Under this type of system, no one really knows how many individual votes a candidate receives. This can create a situation where some voters don’t feel as if their vote has much of an impact.

Still, caucuses tend to have a lot of influence on elections. Many times, candidates issue statements beforehand and vow to drop out of the race if they do not achieve one of the top spots when voting has concluded. In this way, caucuses can help “winnow” or narrow the field of candidates.

Such contests may indicate voting trends to some extent. However, caucuses aren’t always accurate predictors of whom the ultimate winner will be. While some who win in Iowa do go on to become president that isn’t always the case. Other early states also have an influence.

Voters are involved throughout the caucus process.
Voters are involved throughout the caucus process.

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Discussion Comments


thanks malena, for your explanation! i feel like i'm fairly informed on the process, but having never participated in a caucus (this will be my first!) it seemed very mysterious! i am looking forward to "caucusing" this saturday!


Davisismail, The answer to your question depends on the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC); they decide which states have caucuses or primaries, and that decision can change between presidential elections. Because the National Committees decide for their own party, a state could have a caucus for one party and a primary for the other. Here are the 17 caucus states in the 2008 presidential race. The states that have a caucus for only one party are so noted.

Alaska, Colorado, District of Columbia (Democratic), Hawaii, Idaho (Democratic), Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Montana (Republican), Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico (Democratic), North Dakota, Washington, West Virginia (Republican), and Wyoming.

Some territories also have caucuses: American Samoa and Puerto Rico (Democratic). Guam and the Virgin Islands have something that is not characterized as a caucus or primary.

Delegates may be awarded at caucuses or primaries. Again, this is a decision to be made by the respective party's National Committee. In 2008, the National Democratic Committee did not allow delegates to be awarded in the Florida and Michigan primaries because those states moved their primary dates ahead of schedule without the DNC's permission. The RNC took away half of the delegates in the Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, and South Carolina primaries, as well as half of the delegates in the Wyoming caucus as punishment for moving their primaries (and caucus) ahead of Super Tuesday without permission. Otherwise, primaries and caucuses will be permitted to award delegates.


What states, other than Iowa, have caucuses? Are delegates awarded at primaries also?

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