“Caucuses are party meetings by precinct, district, or county, where registered party members gather to discuss the candidates and to select delegates to the next round of party conventions,” according to an article on the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) website. A caucus is the method by which more than one third of the states select a party nominee for their presidential candidate.
Caucus elections were once the dominant selection process for choosing presidential candidates. The process, which dates back to the early 19th century, differed significantly from its present appearance. In the early 1800s, caucuses were meetings between party leaders only. They were the ones charged with selecting an appropriate candidate. In the 1820s, eventual president Andrew Jackson “and other reformers railed against what was called the ‘King Caucus,’ in which a caucus of members of Congress essentially chose the political party nominees.” However, it wasn’t until Richard Nixon beat Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey for the presidency in 1968 that the Democratic Party devised a reform commission to make the process “more open to rank-and-file participation” (reference 1). After they made their changes, Republicans followed suit.
What Happens at a Caucus
Caucuses are usually held at large, public venues such as town halls or school gymnasiums. Attendees are separated according to the candidate they support. They are then charged with the task of vocalizing their support for the candidate in the hopes of persuading members of the opposition to join them. At the end participants are allowed to switch candidates before a tally occurs. The group with the largest number of supporters at this tally will receive the largest number of delegate votes.
Nineteen states hold caucuses for one or both parties. Any voter registered with a particular party in a caucus state can participate in the caucus. However, because the process is much more tedious and time consuming, caucuses tend to have low voter turnout. “With some major exceptions, like Iowa, turnout in caucus states probably remains well under 10 percent of the registered voters” (reference 1).
Aside from the District of Columbia, 16 of 19 states strictly utilize the caucus system for either or both political parties. They are: Iowa, Nevada, Hawaii, Maine, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Washington, Michigan, New Hampshire and Wyoming. Arizona and Texas also use caucuses but they use mixed systems where both the caucus and a primary selection process are utilized. And then there is West Virginia, where the Republican caucus is open to any registered voter, regardless of party.
The Iowa Caucus
The state of Iowa has the distinction of being the first of the 19 caucus elections in the presidential selection process to be held. Although only 1 percent of the nation’s delegates are chosen in Iowa, the state tends to be an early indication of which candidates have potential to be winners in the long nomination process, one reason for the amount of press the caucus receives. This overwhelming attention is one of the major criticisms of the system. Opponents argue that Iowa and other early caucus or primary states receive undue attention because of their early dates.