September 26, 2022

What Happens at a Caucus?

What Happens at a Caucus?

Although New Hampshire holds the nation’s first primary to determine candidates for the president, the Iowa Caucus is actually the first nominating event in the United States. While most people are familiar with primaries and how they work, caucuses, which are only used in a handful of states, tend to be a source of mystery. However, the caucus is just a simple meeting.

For people used to casting their vote quietly in a polling place or at home via absentee ballot, a caucus is a very different experience. In the 14 states that will be holding caucuses instead of primaries, voters will gather with other members of their parties in designated places in their local voting areas, called precincts. Caucus meetings are public and typically take two hours, so they are much more time-consuming than the regular voting process. Most meetings are open to eligible voters who are affiliated with the party with whom they caucus and who reside in the precinct, meaning that only Democrats can attend a Democratic caucus, and only Republicans can attend a Republican caucus.

Agendas for caucus meetings vary from state to state. While many start with the Pledge of Allegiance, some then continue into discussion of general party business and can include discussion of and voting on local party platform planks. In open caucuses, people group together with other supporters of their candidates and speak on behalf of their candidates in the hope of both winning over undecided caucus goers as well as supporters of other candidates. At the end of the caucus, the candidate with the most supporters is the winner of the precinct. Other caucuses have secret ballots during the meeting to determine a winner.

The nature of the caucus tends to negatively impact turnout. There is no way to “absentee” vote at a caucus, since attendance is required. Caucus meetings are time-consuming, which tends to prevent people from attending if they do not have two hours free on that evening. In many states, caucuses require participants to publicly state their allegiance to a candidate, in front of neighbors, which can chill people who are not comfortable with openly exposing their politics. Finally, the seeming complexity of the process tends to scare many potential voters away. As such, turnout in caucus states, other than Iowa which gets heavy turnout due to the national attention that it receives, is lower than in primary states and tends to skew towards the most committed members of the party.


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