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Election 101: The Primary and the Caucus

By Paige Wagenknecht
On January 15, 2012

Because not all of us are political science majors, here's pre election season 101. Today's lesson: the difference between a primary and caucus—and yes, there is a difference.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties will hold conventions this summer before November's general election. At these conventions, selected delegates from each state select their party's presidential candidate. The delegates vote at the convention, state-by-state, for the candidate of their choice and the first to receive a majority number of votes becomes the party's presidential candidate (we will revisit this later).

Delegates for these national conventions are selected at the state level. While the rules and formulas for selection vary from state-to-state and year-to-year, two methods, the primary and the caucus, remain for choosing delegates to the national conventions.

The primary

Presidential elections are very similar to general elections. Voting is done through a secret ballot and voters may chose from all registered candidates or write in a candidate's name.

Two different primaries exist: open and closed. If you flip flop between the Republican and Democratic Party, an open primary would be idle. In states that hold open primaries, registered voters can choose to cast ballots in the primary of either party but voters can only choose one.

In a closed primary, voters must cast their votes for the political party that they are registered in. So, if you registered to vote and labeled yourself a Democrat or Republican, when you show up to vote in a state with a closed primary election, you will receive the ballot of that given party. Most states have closed primaries.

Here is where primaries get confusing. States have different election laws on who and how candidates appear on the ballot. Most states put the actual presidential candidates' names on the ballot, known as presidential preference primaries. But other states, ballots show the names of convention delegates, who then may state their support for one candidate or declare no commitment to a candidate.

Some states bind delegates to vote for the primary winner in voting at the national convention, meaning they must give their vote to the candidate who gains the most votes during the primary. Other states allow unpledged candidates to vote for any candidate they want at the convention.

The caucus

Let's recap. Primaries require registered voters to cast their vote at the polls. Caucuses by contrast require registered voters to physically show up to a meeting. Registered voters must go to a given location and when the caucus begins, they divide themselves into groups determined by the candidate they support. Supporters of candidates then attempt to sway undecided voters toward one candidate or another.

Each group can give speeches supporting their candidate and attempt to persuade others to join their candidate's group. Party organizers count the votes in each candidate's group and determine how many delegates to the county convention an individual candidate has one.

As to exactly how and how many delegates are issued for the conventions differ by party—but that's for another lesson.

For now, think of it as a high school analogy. A primary allows you to select the most popular by writing it down on a piece of paper. A caucus requires you to vocalize and mobilize who you believe is the most popular kid in school.

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