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Primaries And Caucuses In U.S. Presidential Elections

Primaries and Caucuses in U.S. Presidential Elections

Happy Iowa Caucus day! We know, Election 2020 seems like it’s been going on forever. Today, though, Americans cast the first votes for president, and primaries and caucuses begin across the country.

It’s exciting to live in a country when it elects a leader, because it reveals the culture in unique ways. The process exposes issues, divisions, and group interests that are usually more hidden.

Fascinating as they are, elections can be confusing. As a result, you may just stop paying attention. Well, we’re here to help! We’ll start by explaining what exactly primaries and caucuses are and how they work.

What are Caucuses and Primaries?

Caucuses and primaries are the elections whereby the two main political parties each choose their nominee for President of the United States. The Republicans and Democrats hold elections in each state to decide who will be their presidential candidate. For example, in 2016 the Democratic party chose Hillary Clinton and the Republican party chose Donald Trump through state primaries and caucuses. They ran against each other in November.

So why the two names? It’s because even though caucuses and primaries have the same purpose, they have very different processes. Every state gets to decide which type of election it will hold. Let’s look at how each works.


Primaries are simpler and more common than caucuses. They look just like any other election. Voters go to their local polling place, enter a booth, and cast their votes privately. The only confusing thing is who is allowed to vote in which primary.

States can choose if they will have open or closed primaries. In open primaries, anyone can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary. Even if you are registered in one party, you can vote in the other party’s primary. You just can’t vote in both. South Carolina has open primaries.

In states with closed primaries, you are only allowed to vote for a party with which you have registered. If you registered to vote as a Republican, you vote in the Republican primary. Likewise, registered Democrats only vote in the Democratic primary. Independents don’t get to vote in the primaries at all. They have to wait until the general election in the fall.

Voter's hand placing a ballot into a ballot box in primaries and caucuses

A caucus is actually a precinct meeting rather than a typical election. Registered members of a party meet together, discuss the candidates, and then vote.

Each state and each party does caucuses a little differently, but the Iowa Democratic caucus is particularly interesting. They begin with supporters making speeches to promote their candidates. Then, party members vote WITH THEIR BODIES! The party members divide into groups based on whom they support. No private ballots here. Everyone can see who you’re supporting. Any candidate that has less than 15% of the voters is judged not viable, and that group has to break up. Each person from that group must move to a second-choice candidate. As they move, other groups can try to persuade them to support their candidate. As soon as all remaining candidate groups have 15% or more members, the votes are counted. Sounds exciting, no?

Why is the Iowa caucus such a big deal?

For many years Iowa has held the first caucus or primary of the presidential election. This is important because it can set the tone for the rest of the states. If voters see that someone does well in Iowa, they may be more likely to support her. Alternatively, a candidate who has a poor showing may cause people to consider someone else. For this reason, candidates spend a great deal of time and effort in Iowa and other states with early voting. These include New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. (We pride ourselves on being “first in the South”!) After these states have voted, a large block of states votes all together on a day known as Super Tuesday (March 3, 2020). A candidates who doesn’t do well on Super Tuesday will not win the nomination.

Making the nominations official

The Republicans and Democrats officially name a nominee during their national conventions. These take place on different days in different cities over the summer. By this time, it is usually clear who the nominees will be, so there are no surprises at the conventions. They are great political theater though. Often they spotlight exciting, up-and-coming politicians. A young state senator from Illinois came to national attention when he spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His name was Barack Obama, and four years later he was elected president.

So that’s how primaries and caucuses work. If you’re interested learning more about who’s running, go here. To see which Democratic candidate you agree with most, take this quiz.

We hope this makes it easier and more interesting for you to follow all the election fun! Keep watching the Wetzel blog for continuing clarifications of the trickier bits Election 2020.