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What is a caucus?

Learn how a caucus works and where the term originated.

A federal caucus will take place in Washington D.C. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
A federal caucus will take place in Washington D.C.

A caucus is a meeting of local members of a political party where members express their support for a political candidate. Each caucus is made up of registered party members of a particular town, city or county. In the case of a presidential or national election, each caucus in a state is counted to determine the state's support for a candidate. Likewise, for state elections, the relevant caucus results are tallied to determine the winner.

The caucus, a sometimes-confusing method of primary voting, predates both major political parties in the United States, although both Republicans and Democrats participate in the caucus system.

According to America.gov, a U.S. Department of State Web site, the word caucus comes from a Native American term that describes a meeting of tribal leaders. In the modern context, those leaders are registered voters of political parties who gather together to cast their votes as part of the election process.

Essentially, party members congregate in small groups to discuss the merits of each candidate, and eventually a decision is made as to which candidate that particular group supports. Once all the small caucuses are held (usually all on the same day in a particular state), the results are added up and the winning candidate is announced.

The rules for holding caucuses differ from party to party, as well as from state to state, making the caucus process more complicated than a straight primary election, in which each citizen casts a single vote and all the votes are added together to determine the winner.

Precinct Caucus

During a caucus, certain small groups vote either with a show of hands or by casting ballots. These small groups, which usually encompass a town or city, are called precinct caucuses. Assuming that all precinct caucuses have determined their support for a particular candidate or candidates, congressional district or county meetings are held, with representatives who support the candidates that have also been chosen at the precinct caucuses. The number of representatives is then narrowed further to choose the national or state delegates who will ultimately cast the state's vote for the nominee of choice.

Voting Methods

Each state, in concert with the two main political parties, determines both its method of casting primary votes and the date on which it will do so. Some states follow the caucus system, and others use a straightforward primary election. A few states, such as Texas and Washington, use a combination of caucuses and primary elections to make their ultimate choice. 

The Iowa Caucus

The Iowa caucus has been the earliest caucus for each national election since the 1970s. It is considered a springboard, as the candidate who wins the Iowa caucus gains momentum and recognition going into other states' primaries and caucuses.

Caucus Cons

On the downside, caucuses are not as representative of individual voters as primary elections. Because of the significant time commitment involved in caucusing for a candidate, only the most committed and politically interested citizens are likely to attend, causing turnout to generally be very low.

More on Caucuses

For more information about which states hold caucuses and when, check out the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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