Caucuses to Start February 3... Will This Be Their Last Year?

Caucus. It’s a word we’re starting to hear frequently again. But not quite as often as we used to. I’ll explain why in a moment.

What is a caucus? This might be a good time for a review.

A caucus is a meeting of supporters of a specific political party who gather to elect delegates.

These delegates then choose the person they believe should be the candidate in a particular election.

Meeting of the Minds

A caucus is different from a primary. The primary is a state-wide event conducted by the state government where voters cast ballots for candidates.

Caucuses are more of a “meeting of neighbors.” Groups of citizens in precincts, districts or counties come together in local assemblies. They discuss who they think will make the best candidates.

These caucuses are often held in town halls, school gymnasiums and restaurants. Participants group themselves by which candidate they support.

When attendees are undecided regarding which candidate they will support, they’ll form their own group.

Activists Usually Dominate 

Caucuses and primaries serve the same basic purpose. But the process of gathering and talking distinguishes caucuses from primaries.

That’s how Wayne Steger describes the difference. He’s an associate professor of political science at DePaul University.

Caucuses are open to any registered voter in a party. But this process is usually dominated by party activists. Turnout at a caucus is usually well under 10 percent of registered voters. 

Voters who participate in caucuses are usually “quite active in the political party in other ways,” said Alan Abramowitz. He’s a political science professor at Emory University. Party leaders and activists have more influence in a caucus setting.

More Supporters Means More Delegate Votes

Following a caucus, an election is held. That’s when delegates to a county or state convention who pledge to support the majority candidate are selected.

These delegates then select delegates to the national convention. That’s where the final choice is made as to who will run for the office from that party.

Delegates pledged through caucuses to candidates who drop out of the race realign with a different campaign. This occurs at county or state conventions.

The group of supporters that has the most people in its camp receives the largest number of delegate votes.

Caucuses Down to 6 States

Caucuses generally do not receive the attention primaries do. The exception is in Iowa. It’s the first race in the nominating season. The Iowa Caucus will be held February 3.

Until the 1970s, most states conducted caucuses rather than primaries. As recently as 2008, 19 states held caucuses for one or both parties.

Nearly 15 percent of Republican delegates were at stake in caucus states in 2008. And more than 10 percent of Democratic delegates.

But in 2020, only six states will hold caucuses. They are Iowa, Nevada, Kansas, North Dakota, Wyoming and Maine. Less than 5 percent of pledged delegates will be awarded by caucuses in the Democratic primary.

Party Establishments Shun Caucuses

Why the big drop-off? The main reason is political establishments don’t like caucuses. With primaries, more people participate. And that usually means less chance of a fringe candidate gaining support.

With caucuses, fewer participate because the events are often held outside a voter’s regular precinct.

In addition, caucuses can last for hours. Far longer than showing up for a primary, voting and leaving.

The fewer caucuses, the greater chance a party establishment candidate will gain the nomination.

A Dying Breed?

Caucuses might be a dying breed. And that’s unfortunate in at least one respect. People gathering to discuss politics is a good thing.

It’s reminiscent of our Founding Fathers coming together to make sure their new nation was abiding by its original principles.

And to ensure that candidates had the country’s best interests at heart. The fewer caucuses there are, the less often this activity will occur.

Many people know whom they wish to vote for heading into an election. But others could benefit from open discussions involving various candidates’ supporters. 

Vote in Honor of Vets

There may only be six states still conducting caucuses. But there are more than a dozen states sponsoring the “Vote in Honor of Veterans” program.

These states encourage people to honor someone who served in the military. How? By filling out a postcard or making a tribute online.

The state then sends the submitter and honoree an “Honor a Veteran With Your Vote” lapel pin. The pins are worn to the polls on election day.

Participating states are California, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine. Plus Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington.

Voting Is a Privilege

Paul Pate is the Iowa Secretary of State. Here’s what he says about the program.

“Hundreds of thousands of brave men and women defended our freedoms and our right to choose our representative form of government.

“We cannot say ‘thank you’ enough for what they did for us. But we can honor them by participating in our elections.”

Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler added this. “One of our most sacred rights is the right to vote. It’s a right that men and women fought and died for. It should not be taken for granted.”

It might be interesting to watch special attention to the upcoming caucuses. At the rate things are going, we may never see them again.


  • Rebecca - January 30, 2020

    Caucuses are something not heard much about these days. Perhaps if they received more coverage in the media and more candidates participated from various walks of life and experience, they would find more common ground on the things that really matter and are basic to our society’s survival and security and freedom. I think the new Town Hall Meetings are of some significance, to truly have locals ask their leaders the questions that are on their minds, rather than the redundant scripted questions given in a debate or a primary. Americans are tired of our leaders’ watered down answers to placate the loudest, most obnoxious babbling, minority or interest group. It’s time they are straight forward in their speech. Say what they mean, and mean what they say. Unapologetic Backbones.

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