Examining our Elections: What’s the Difference Between a Caucus and a Primary?

Freddi Mitchell

As the 2020 election cycle takes off, it is important to stay informed on how the election process works. Before the general election takes place on November 3rd, Democrats and Republicans must each nominate a candidate. A nominee is determined by a candidate’s performance in a series of caucuses and primaries that take place in all 50 states and the territories. 

What makes each process unique is how the vote is conducted. The Bill of Rights Institute describes a primary as “similar to that of a general election,” meaning that in a primary, a candidate is chosen based on the amount of votes they receive statewide. A primary has one round of voting that takes place in voting booths at a local polling place. 

Like a primary, a caucus involves voting for a candidate, but that is where the similarities end. Some could even call a caucus the Electoral College version of a primary. Caucusing means that a person must attend a precinct at local school gyms, auditoriums, or other community spaces in order to cast their vote for the candidate of their choice. Multiple stages of voting take place, where voters are given the choice to realign if their first preference is not awarded a certain percentage of votes in the first round of voting. A winner is determined by a candidate’s percentage of the state delegate count. Each county throughout the state is given a certain amount of state delegates, which are divided up based on the percentage of votes a candidate receives in that county. 

After February 3rd’s disastrous Iowa caucus night for the Democrats, the topic of caucuses has been thrust into the spotlight, but in order to understand how caucusing works, looking at Iowa’s process is helpful. Iowa’s caucuses officially became first in the nation during the 1972 primaries. In 2020, Iowa had two caucus rounds, shortening the duration from previous years. In the first round, voters came to their caucus space and grouped together with fellow supporters of their top choice candidate. Once the caucuses began, the votes for each candidate were tallied. If a candidate did not receive 15 percent or more of the first round vote, that candidate was declared “unviable.” Those candidates’ supporters were given a choice of either joining a different candidate’s section, banding together with other “unviable” candidates’ supporters to make one of their first round candidates viabled, or leaving. After this realignment process, the final votes were tallied and converted into their state delegate equivalent. Or at least, that is how it was supposed to go before the app crashed.

With Iowa finished and the Super Tuesday primaries approaching, the country is starting to question if caucuses should even happen anymore or if low population states with little demographic diversity should begin the country’s election cycle. By understanding the difference between a caucus and a primary, voters who help decide what our elections look like can choose for themselves how they want our democratic processes to work. 

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