Caucus vs. Primary

Every time we have an election cycle you hear about a caucus vs. a primary, but what's the difference between them? What does it really mean for one state to have a caucus and another to have a primary, and do the results count the same when it comes to determining a nominee for political office in the convention system?

For one thing, whether a state has a caucus or a primary, each state sends delegates to the party convention to decide the party's nominee for the presidential election, so at that point they do not seem very different, and that is the first thing many voters have exposure to. However, the caucuses and primaries that dictate what these delegates will do are quite different.

Here is a quick look at the difference between a primary and caucus.

What is a Caucus?

The term caucus generally means a meeting of political party members to discuss or debate what they stand for and to figure out who will represent them in the upcoming election. The most widely known caucus in the United States is the first in the nation Iowa caucuses that occur every 4 years to select the presidential nominee for the party.

One way you can think of caucuses is to think of a set of meetings. Basically, party members meet to jointly pick their candidates for an election, but they do this by selecting delegates - people who will go to the national convention and cast their votes for a candidate. During this time there may be debate, agreement, arguments, or any other form of negotiation before delegates are selected that will ultimately vote for a candidate.

In the case of the Iowa caucuses, there are 99 different counties that each have a meeting at the same time to decide how the delegates will vote, which is rolled up to the state level until a decision has been made. Unlike a primary which feels much more like a general election, a caucus is a bit more chaotic and may require some negotiation to resolve.

One meaning is a meeting of members of a political party or subgroup to coordinate members' actions, choose group policy, or nominate candidates for various offices. The term is frequently used to discuss the procedures used by some states to select presidential nominees

What is a Primary?

The term primary generally means an election before the general election. Traditionally the first primary in the United States in every presidential election year takes place in New Hampshire. Unlike a caucus which is a meeting of delegates who debate and ultimately vote for a candidate, in a primary voters go to the polls to select a nominee for political office.

There are different kinds of primaries in use today and they continue to change state-by-state as time goes by. An open primary is one in which all voters may take part, even if they don't belong to the party. That means that Republicans can vote for Democrats running for office, and vice versa. A closed primary requires that voters be registered with a party in order to vote for a candidate of a particular party.

The thinking behind the open primary is that a party wants a popular candidate across all voters, but this can work against the party if the general population chooses a candidate not popular with most core party members as it may lower voter turnout in the general election.

The thinking behind the closed primary is that a party should choose its nominee, but this can result in a nominee that is too far right or left to win the general election which may push the independent voters to the other party's candidate.

There are other alternatives as well. Semi-closed primaries invite voters who are not registered with either party to vote where semi-opened primaries allow each voter to vote on only one party's ballot, so while they can vote for the other party they could then not vote for their own.

Caucus States

These are the 13 states and 1 territory that hold caucuses instead of primaries.

  • Alaska
  • Colorado
  • Kansas
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Maine
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri*
  • Nevada
  • North Dakota
  • Washington
  • Wyoming
  • U.S. Virgin Islands

Missouri holds a primary but a caucus is being held to determine the delegates sent to the convention.

Primary States

These are the 38 states (plus the District of Columbia) that hold primaries.

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri*
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

*Missouri holds a primary but a caucus is being held to determine the delegates sent to the convention.

How the Delegates Vote

When the delegates finally get to the national convention they vote according to the rules set forth by their state and their party.

The Democrats award delegate votes in a pro-rata format, meaning each candidate will get a proportional share of the delegates representing the number of votes he or she got in the caucus or primary.

The Republicans use this pro-rata method in some states but a winner-take-all method in others, where the majority candidate gets all the delegates.

As with other caucus and primary rules, the states and parties continue to change these rules over time.

Whatever Works For You

As you can see, there is certainly a difference between a caucus and a primary, and if one thing is certain it is that we will continue to see the rules and dates of these political gatherings evolve over time.

The convention system seems to work even with these great variances state-by-state. Most voters don't realize how much the process of selecting convention delegates varies from one state to another. Regardless of whether a state uses a caucus vs. primary, the important thing is that the best candidate for the party is selected for the general election.