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Understanding The Differences Between US Caucuses And Primary Elections: History, Background And Process

In the US, each major political party fields a single presidential candidate. To pick a presidential candidate, political parties typically hold caucuses and primaries, which are essentially a series of elections that play an important role in US politics. To learn more, checkout the infographic below created by New England College’s Masters in Public Policy program.

1. Caucuses

In the US, caucuses served as the main method for selecting candidates for various political positions until the introduction of primaries in the early 1900s. Although they tend to hit the headlines during presidential nominations, parties also hold caucuses to select local party leaders, delegates who attend county and district conventions, as well as iron out state or national party issues. In some cases, caucuses can last several hours as party members participate in lengthy community discussions.

1a. Voter Participation during Caucuses

Voter participation in caucuses typically varies from one state to the next. Nevertheless, caucuses tend to have low voter turnout compared to primaries. For instance, only 66,027 voters representing 1.8% of eligible Republican voters participated in the 2012 Colorado Republican presidential caucus. In North Dakota, 11,349 representing 2.2% of eligible voters participated in presidential caucuses during the same period. The turnout in Maine was even lower, with only 5,814 of eligible Republican voters (0.6% of eligible Republican voters) voting during the state’s Republican presidential caucus. Further North in Hawaii, 10,288 or 1% of eligible voters voted in the Hawaiian Republican presidential caucus. Iowa fared better with 147,255 or 6.5% of eligible voters showing up to vote in the state’s presidential caucus. Fourteen states, including Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Utah, Nebraska, Nevada, Washington and Wyoming, will hold caucuses in 2016.

2. Primaries

Though conducted by parties, primaries are the first step in the election process. Their aim is to whittle down the crowd of interested candidates down to a single candidate for a given political office. Prior to 1968, parties held primaries behind closed doors, meaning they were rarely democratic. It is the duty of state governments to fund and conduct primaries. During primaries, eligible voters normally leave after casting their vote at a polling center.

2a. Voter Participation during Primaries

During the 2012 presidential primaries, 5,328,296 or 22.9% of eligible voters participated in the California primary, whereas 1,191,386 or 16.5% of eligible voters participated in the Michigan primary. In New Hampshire, 311,311 or 31.1% of eligible voters participated in the state’s primary. The Arkansas primary attracted 335,885 or 15.9% of eligible voters while 22,670 or 3% of eligible voters showed up for the Rhode Island primary. During the 2016 primaries, 37 states including the District of Columbia will hold primaries.

Types of State Primary Elections

Caucuses or primaries can be either open, closed, top-two or hybrid.
  • Open
In open primary, any eligible voter can vote irrespective of political inclination. Eleven states have adopted an open primary system.
  • Closed
This type of primary system only allows registered members of a given political party to vote for their nominees of choice. Eleven states conduct nomination primaries via closed nomination.
  • Top-two
Eligible voters vote for their candidates and the top two get tickets to fight it out in the general election. This primary nomination format is used by four states.
  • Hybrid
This system is a mix of open and closed primary nomination processes. Twenty-four states use hybrid nomination during primaries.

Why Iowa and New Hampshire Matter


Iowa is a key state because eight of the last 10 Democratic presidential candidates who have won the state’s caucus since 1976 have gone on to win their party’s nomination. These include Jimmy Carter (1976), Walter Mondale (1984), Bill Clinton (1996 uncontested), Al Gore (200), John Kerry (2004), Barack Obama (2008), and Barack Obama (2012). On the Republican side, six of 10 candidates who have won the Iowa State caucus since 1976 have eventually clinched their party’s nomination. These include Gerald Ford (1976), Ronald Reagan (1984 uncontested), George H. W. Bush (1992 uncontested), Bob Dole (1996), George W. Bush (2000) and George W. Bush (2004 uncontested).

New Hampshire

Seven out of 10 Democratic party candidates who have won the New Hampshire State caucus have gone on to clinch their party’s nomination. These include Jimmy Carter (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980), Michael Dukakis (1988), Bill Clinton (1996 uncontested), Al Gore (2000), John Kerry (2004), and Barack Obama (2008 uncontested). For the Republicans, eight out of 10 candidates who have won this state’s caucus have won the GOP nomination. These include Gerald Ford (1976), Ronald Reagan (1984), George H. W. Bush (1988), George H. W. Bush (1992), George W. Bush (2004 uncontested), John McCain (2008), and Mitt Romney (2012).

Iowa and New Hampshire State Caucus Winners

Democratic and Republican candidates who have won their party’s nomination since 1976 after clinching Iowa and New Hampshire include:
  • Carter and Ford (1976)
  • Carter and Reagan (1980)
  • Mondale and Reagan (1984)
  • Dukakis and H. W. Bush (1988)
  • Clinton and H. W. Bush (1992)
  • Clinton and Dole (1996)
  • Gore and Bush (2000)
  • Kerry and Bush (2004)
  • Obama and McCain (2008)
  • Obama and Romney (2012)

Understanding The Differences Between US Caucuses And Primary Elections
Infographic Provided By Onlinedegrees.Nec.Edu

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