Merriam-Webster defines a caucus as a closed meeting of a group of persons belonging to the same political party or faction usually to select candidates or to decide on policy. In the United States, caucuses are political party meetings organized by precinct, district, or county, whereby members meet to discuss candidates, voice support, and select delegates for the next round of party conventions. The caucus system plays a role in the selection of a presidential party nominee in 19 states.
The Caucus Nationwide
In the U.S., 16 of 19 states and the District of Columbia utilize the caucus method exclusively. The other three rely on a hybrid method that combines a primary and caucus to determine a winner. The 16 caucus states are Iowa, Nevada, Hawaii, Maine, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Washington, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Wyoming. Seven of these caucus elections occur on Super Tuesday, the Tuesday in February or March when an onslaught of primaries and caucuses occur on the same day.
For many Americans, Iowa is the state that comes to mind when you consider a caucus. Iowa is home to the first of the 19 caucus elections. Although only 1 percent of the nation’s delegates are chosen in Iowa, the state receives a veritable smorgasbord of media attention for its front runner status and tendency to “make or break” candidates. It is not unheard of for third, fourth, or fifth place Iowa caucus finishers from either party to drop out of the race altogether. The overwhelming attention that the Iowa caucus receives 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, attention that should be diverted to more populous states.
Arizona and Texas use a mixed-caucus or hybrid system, where both the caucus and primary are used to determine the distribution of delegates. In Arizona, the Republican Party utilizes a primary election followed by a district level caucus process to divvy out delegates. In Texas, Democrats distribute 30 percent of delegates by way of the caucus and 70 percent by primary. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “Kenneth Molberg of the Texas State Democratic Executive Committee told NPR the reason for this format was to give voters input in the national delegate selection process by having a primary but also to 'preserve the role of the activist' through holding a caucus.” Needless to say, some find this mixed system confusing.
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