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Caucus vs Primary

Updated on August 12, 2013

What is the Difference Between a Caucus and Primary?

Welcome to election season! This year, 2012 is bound to be an interesting election year with President Obama working to keep his seat in the White House and a slew of Republican candidates in the running.

The 2012 election season is underway!

The political system of the United States includes both caucuses and primaries leading up to the selection of a candidate for each of the major political parties: Democrats and Republicans.

Let's clarify the system and consider how delegates are selected for the Presidential race. From throwing their hat into the race until the date of the convention, the guess of who will be picked to represent each party is anyone's guess.

It comes down to caucuses vs primary - and there are several different types of each. Depending on the state in which you live, you'll need to determine whether you're casting a vote in a booth, or attending a meeting to discuss (caucus) who to send to the Convention in the fall.

Caucuses and Primaries are used to select parties' Presidential Candidates in the USA
Caucuses and Primaries are used to select parties' Presidential Candidates in the USA

Caucus vs Primary

Some of the 2012 Republican candidates and their spouses
Some of the 2012 Republican candidates and their spouses | Source

What is a Caucus?

Unlike the privacy of a voting booth, a caucus is a gathering of members of a political party - either Democrats or Republicans - in which they choose the candidate they wish to nominate. The political party announces the date, time and location of a meeting at which the candidates will be discussed. Any voter registered with the party may attend. The candidates are discussed and debated, and delegates are usually chosen to represent the state's interests at the national convention. Most will commit to support one of the candidates, but some will remain undecided.

Caucuses were the original method of choosing party candidates. However, they have declined in use and popularity since the primary was introduced in the early 1900s. It was thought that the primary system was a more democratic method of allowing across-the-board voter participation in the candidate selection than the caucus system.

In the 2008 election cycle, the Iowa caucuses were the first to occur. The Democrats in that state decided to support Barack Obama as their candidate in these caucuses. On Super Tuesday on February 4, 2008, the state of Idaho also held caucuses and the Democrats nominated Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton.

In 2012, Iowa was once again the first state to hold caucuses, on January 2, 2012. Republican candidate Mitt Romney narrowly edged out Rick Santorum by a mere handful of votes! Of course, the presumed Democratic nominee in 2012 is President Obama.

Each state makes its own decision as to whether to hold a caucus or a primary. Some have difficulty making up their mind. In Washington State, the state legislature decided that the state would change from a caucus system to a primary. However, the Washington State Democratic Party steadfastly decided to choose their delegates through caucuses, instead. Confusingly, votes cast for a Democratic candidate in the state primary will not count toward the delegate selection because the delegates will be selected by the caucuses. With Democratic races so tight, the confusion factor will likely be frustrating to voters and the candidates alike.

Primary Elections Explained

Various Types of Primary Elections

In states that do not hold caucuses to nominate the presidential candidate(s), presidential primary elections will be held. Note that, as in Washington State, one party may elect its candidate by primary election (Republicans), while the other party may nominate its candidate through the caucus system (Democrats), or vice versa. These may or may not occur on the same date.

A primary election is generally what you might expect. Voters cast ballots for the candidate that they wish to elect, either in voting booths, or by absentee ballot, as permitted by law. There are different types of primary elections allowed in each state, however.

Closed elections mean that you cannot vote for a candidate in the opposite party. If you are a declared Democrat, you can only vote for a Democratic candidate.

Open elections are those in which you can vote for a candidate in any party. Only one vote can be cast, of course. No party affiliation need be made or adhered to.

Blanket primary. This type of election allows voters to cast vote for one candidate per office, regardless of party.

How are Delegates Awarded?

This question is probably the most critical - at least this year for the Democratic candidates. The Republican Party's method is relatively simple: it allows states to decide whether to use a winner-take-all method of awarding delegates, or the proportional method used by the Democrats.

The proportional method used by the Democratic Party divides up delegates among candidates based on number of primary votes, and overall support of caucus-goers. Thus, if a state has 10 delegates up for grabs, and there are 3 candidates on the ballot, if Candidate A received 60% of the votes, she would receive 6 delegates. If Candidate B received 30% of the votes, he would receive 3 delegates. Candidate C, with only 10% of the votes, would have 1 delegate.

The differing counts you may be hearing regarding the total number of delegates for each candidate is partially due to the fact that some caucus-attendees are undecided on the candidate that they will support at the national convention. Others have thrown their support to candidates that are no longer in the race, like Senator Edwards. As a result, those delegates are basically not counted yet.

The impact of "super delegates" is also a factor in the Democratic race. Nearly 40% of the delegates required for a nomination (842) are not even elected. Elected leaders, former presidents, governors, and "party elders" automatically get a say in nominating the party's candidate. These super delegates are uncommitted and can change their mind. Current counts include differing numbers for Clinton and Obama based on the super delegate counts.

Republicans do not have a super delegate system.

In short, with the race as tight as it is right now, it may be weeks before the counts are complete and a clear leader emerges on the Democratic side. Neither candidate appears ready to step aside yet. So, it looks like we'll continue down the list of caucuses and primary contests - state-by-state, as we come closer to the national conventions.

The 2012 Election Republican Field Ready for Iowa Caucuses

State by State Information for the 2012 Election

Source: 2012

Monday, January 16th; 28 Delegates Up

  • Iowa 28 Caucus- Closed

Tuesday, January 21st; 23 Delegates Up

  • New Hampshire 23 Primary/Proportional -Modified

Saturday, January 28th: 73 Delegates Up

  • Nevada 23 Caucus Closed
  • South Carolina - 50 Primary/ Winner-Take-All Open

Tuesday, January 31st; 99 delegates Up

  • Florida 99 -Primary/Winner-Take-All Closed

Tuesday, February 7th; 680 Delegates Up

  • Alabama 50 Primary/Winner-Take-All Open
  • California 172 Primary/Winner-Take-All Closed
  • Connecticut 28 Primary/Winner-Take-All Closed
  • Delaware 17 Primary/Winner-Take-All Closed
  • Georgia 75 Primary/Winner-Take-All Modified
  • Missouri -53 Primary/Winner-Take-All Closed
  • New Jersey 50 – Primary/Winner-Take-All – Modified
  • New York - 95 Primary/Winner-Take-All Closed
  • Oklahoma - 43 Primary/Winner-Take-All Closed
  • Tennessee - 58 Primary/Winner-Take-All (by district) Open
  • Utah - 39 Primary/Winner-Take-All Modified

Saturday, February 11th; 44 Delegates Up

  • Louisiana - 44 Primary/Proportional Closed

Tuesday, February 14th; 56 Delegates Up

  • Maryland 37 Primary/Winner-Take-All Closed
  • Virginia - 49 Primary/Winner-Take-All Open

Tuesday, February 21st; 62 Delegates Up

  • Hawaii 20 Caucus Closed
  • Wisconsin - 42 -Primary/Winner-Take-All Open

Tuesday, February 28th; 66 Delegates Up

  • Arizona - 57 Primary/Winner-Take-All Closed
  • Michigan - 59 – Primary/Winner-Take-All Open

Tuesday, March 6th; -335Delegates Up

  • Minnesota 40 Caucus Open
  • Massachusetts - 41 Primary/Proportional Modified
  • Ohio - 66 Primary/Winner-Take-All Modified
  • Rhode Island - 19 – Primary/Proportional – Modified
  • Texas - 152 Primary/ Winner-Take-All (by district) – Open
  • Vermmont - 17 Primary/Winner-Take-All Open

Tuesday, March 13th; 37 delegates Up

  • Mississippi 37 Primary/Winner-Take-All (by district) Open

Tuesday, March 20th; 105 Delegates Up

  • Colorado - 36 Caucus Closed
  • Illinois - 69 Loophole Primary Open

Tuesday, April 24th; 72 Delegates Up

  • Pennsylvania 72 Loophole Primary Closed

Tuesday, May 8th; 132 Delegates Up

  • Indiana 46 Primary/Winner-Take-all Open
  • North Carolina 55 Primary/Proportional – Modified
  • West Virginia 31 Primary/Winner-Take-All Modified

Tuesday, May 15th; 64 Delegates Up

  • Nebraska - 35 Advisory Modified
  • Oregon 29 Primary/Proportional – Closed

Tuesday, May 27th; 113 Delegates Up

  • Arkansas 36 Primary/Proportional Open
  • Idaho - 32 Primary/Proportional Open
  • Kentucky - 45 Primary/ Proportional Closed

Tuesday, June 7th; - 57 Delegates Up

  • Montana - 26 Primary/ Winner-Take-All Open
  • New Mexico -23 Primary/Proportional Closed
  • South Dakota 28 Primary/Proportional Closed

Monday, August 27th Thursday, August 30th, 2012;

  • 40th National Republican Convention in Florida


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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I must admit that I thought the the term "caucus" was related to "caucasian". Something perhaps that only Americans of European decent could take part in! lol

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I just wanted to point out that Santorum actually won the Iowa Caucus.

    • vrajavala profile image


      11 years ago from Port St. Lucie

      I believe the Democrats are now focused on eliminating Caucuses because they are essentially undemocratic.

      There are many reports of physical threatening and thuggery that went on during the so-called democratic caucuses.

      I believe that the primary should be by secret ballot and also that the delegates should be mandated to cast their vote according to how the people voted. Unfortunately that was not done. There were actually  delegates who sold their votes. One of them, Steven Ybarra from California sold his vote 20 million bucks.

    • profile image


      12 years ago

      Great lens - Your lens rocks! <br><br><a target="_blank" href=" insurance california</a>

    • fishskinfreak2008 profile image


      12 years ago from Fremont CA

      It's only the DEMOCRATIC race that's crazy because of delegate splitting. On the Republican side, whoever wins a particular state gets all the delegates in that state.

    • make moneyonline profile image

      make moneyonline 

      12 years ago

      I always wondered what Super Tuesday was, and why it often didn't decide who would lead each party. Your description really clears it up for neophytes that didn't study this stuff.

      Now, where's poor lil' Ron Paul?

    • LIP profile image


      12 years ago from United States

      great information, its always good to educate people. this race seems to be as historic as JFKs. Bush claims obama has no experience, what experience did he have? its crazy this country elected 2 oil barrons to run in. look at the millions cheney has made, imagine bush. Hopefully obama leads the way, what he lacks in in-office experience he makes up in life experience. his books tell awe inspiring stories of what made him what he is today. someone we can trully look up to. 2009 cant come soon enough.

    • profile image


      12 years ago

      This is a great hub - very informative. I for one am not a fan of caucusing - give me the one person one vote primary any day of the week.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Marshall 

      12 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      I totally agree! I sit here in Oregon, waiting for May!! UGH. I moved here from Washington State a few years ago. so I watch what happened there this weekend with some envy.

    • jormins profile image


      12 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Great hub, I watched a live caucus on tv when they were voting in Nevada. I envy people who have been able to caucus for Obama. Normal voting is so boring in comparison.

    • The Phantom Blot profile image

      The Phantom Blot 

      12 years ago

      Good info, thanks.

    • Peter M. Lopez profile image

      Peter M. Lopez 

      12 years ago from Sweetwater, TX

      Great hub, stephhicks. Even as an old Political Science student this stuff can get confusing. Nice explanation.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Marshall 

      12 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thanks - it is so complicated. I even learned something about the "super delegates."

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 

      12 years ago from San Francisco

      Great explanation - wish I read this a couple of months ago!


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