Caucuses and Primaries: what are they and why have them

With the results of the Iowa Caucus in place, the official race for the 2012 Presidency has begun in ernest. From this point forward every candidate is in a battle to claim caucuses and primaries, with the resulting political influence and donations that come with these victories. The net winner will go on to face their political opponent (in this case the incumbent President Obama), and then the majority of America will forget about 99% of all the politics that took place.

Every 4 years there is one question that is asked often, and likely unasked by many more people than are willing to admit it. What is a Caucus? The same can be said of a Primary, and what function both play in the eventual standoff of Republican vs Democrat for President.

Whether a Caucus or Primary, the candidates are seeking to gain as many delagates as possible. These delagates will be tallied at the national convention for each Party, where the nominee for the Presidency will be named. Majority of delagates (51%) wins. There are about 2,308 Republican delegates; Democrats have roughly 4,364 delegates according to the 2008 US Dept of State records.

A Caucus is almost the same thing as a Primary. Both are designed to assign delegates, from the respective political Party, in favor of this or that candidate for President. In a nutshell, its a smaller and slightly less removed, version of the electoral college that is used to determine who actually wins the Presidential election (which does NOT have to match the popular vote – and has happened in the past).

The big difference in a Caucus is how it functions. It’s not the simple vote and tally system that is a Primary.

In a Caucus, voters enter a predetermined gathering area for that district. Voters seat themselves for whichever candidate they support, as well as undecided voters. Each group gets a chance to speak about, defend, and tout their candidate of choice. The goal is to convince voters of other candidates and the undecided vote to join with them. After every group has had the chance to speak, a tally is taken of the total supporters for each group.

When the totals equal a certain percentage (which varies in each State) the decision is considered final. If not, the process continues until either time or the required percentage is reached.

That is a Caucus. It can take considerably more time than a Primary.

A Primary, as stated in part above, is a direct vote of each voter with the tally being a direct representation of their views.

Here is where it gets tricky. How do the votes turn into delagates? It depends on the State. In some, the winner takes it all. In others each candidate gets a number of delagates in proportion to the percentage of votes they received.

    Ie. – If there are 100 potential delagates, and candidate X has 40% of the vote and won the State then:

    Either Candidate X would get 100 delatages or 40 delagates, depending on the system that particular State uses.

Texas is an exception in that it uses both a Caucus and a Primary. 2/3 of the votes are in a Primary format, 1/3 are done in a Caucus.

If you are wondering which system you use, here is the breakdown. The following States use the Caucus system, the rest are Primaries:

Alaska
Colorado
Idaho
Kansas
Minnesota
North Dakota
Iowa
Nevada
Nebraska
Washington
Maine
Wyoming
Texas*
Utah

Hopefully this helps clarify what a Caucus and Primary are, and why they are important to the candidates and Parties. The best way to find out more about the process in your State is to contact the political party of your choice (or even better both).

The best way to determine who you should vote for, in a Caucus, Primary, or the Presidential election, is to know who is running and what they actually have done and stand for. That means learning more than what is said in a 30 second television commercial, or even in watching 1 or more debates. There is a lot that is left out in those formats that you might want to consider before you vote.

If not, you may regret the vote you made and it can’t be taken back or changed. At least not until 4 years are up.

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2 Comments

  1. Why is Iowa the first state to caucus? Why is Iowa so important? When does the other states caucus? Who decided what states caucuses and/or do primaries?

  2. Nila,

    Sorry for the delay. Iowa has traditionally always been the first State (occasionally trading places with New Hampshire). The reason for why it is important is multiple. In part because this allows smaller States to have a voice in who is elected. Also, this takes the temperature of what people outside of the large population centers and bigger States think. It helps to get a more universal outlook on where the nation is and wants to go.

    As for how a decision is made to make a caucus or a primary, that is based on the State parties themselves. But the traditions have been around so long they don’t really change. It would cause more confusion for voters at this point if it did change.

    As for the schedule, usually each Party, at the national level, will have a list of dates. You can also check out Real Clear Politics as they have a listing of the dates and results as well.

    I hope this helps and again I am sorry for the delay.

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