Caucuses vs. primaries explained

Bianna Golodryga
Yahoo News and Finance Anchor

By Kaye Foley

Before the race to the White House can become one-on-one for the 2016 general election, the parties need to formally select their nominees. That happens at the Republican and Democratic conventions — Cleveland and Philadelphia, respectively — where delegates officially pledge their support to a candidate. The man or woman with the most delegates becomes the nominee.

Generally, delegates are awarded at the state level through one of two ways of voting: a caucus or a primary.  

Caucuses are local meetings of registered party members during which they vote as well as discuss business. The state party organizes these events. Caucuses happen in precincts or counties and are typically held in places like high school gyms, living rooms, town halls or other public venues. Caucus-goers give speeches, debate and glad-hand to convince others to vote like them.

The rules and methods for caucusing vary state-by-state and even year-by-year, but often voting is tallied by participants standing in groups that support their preferred candidates by a show of hands or by paper ballots.

Primaries, on the other hand, are run by the state government and are done by secret ballot at a polling place, a lot like the general election. There are two main types of primaries. In closed primaries, members vote in the party primary in which they’re registered. Open primaries mean registered voters can cast a ballot in any party primary, but they can only vote in one.  

Caucuses are time-consuming, sometimes lasting hours. They usually have lower voter turnout, but that often means that those who show up are very politically active and passionate. The results tend to skew more to the left or to the right. Primaries are faster and usually have a longer voting window so more people can participate, which leads to moderate results when compared to the caucuses.

“States choose caucuses over primaries for a number of reasons. One is tradition,” explained Josh Putnam, a political science lecturer at the University of Georgia and author of the blog Frontloading HQ. “Caucusing is just how a state party has handled the delegate selection process in the past.”

For both caucuses and primaries, the votes eventually translate into delegates who will support candidates at the national conventions. States and the parties have different methods for calculating and awarding those delegates. And caucuses typically have a middle step at the county or state level before finalizing numbers.

So who will secure their party’s nomination? We’ll have to wait and see. But the next time someone brings up the presidential election, when it comes to caucuses and primaries, after watching this video at least you can say, “Now I get it.”