What Is a Caucus? Definition and Examples

Road to presidential election begins with Iowa Caucuses.
Road to presidential election begins with Iowa Caucuses.

Gustavofrazao / Getty Images

A caucus is a meeting of supporters or members of a specific political party or movement. As it originated in the United States, the term can refer to a meeting of members of a political party to select delegates to nominate candidates for an upcoming election, or plan party policy direction in the United States Congress or state legislatures.

Key Takeaways: What Is a Caucus?

  • In politics, a caucus is a gathering in which party members choose candidates for an election.
  • Participants at a caucus may discuss the issues and debate for or against the candidates.
  • In a caucus, the voting process itself may not be conducted by secret ballot. Instead, caucus-goers may vote by raising hands or gathering in groups organized by their preferred candidate.
  • By contrast, a primary election is a state-administered election in which voters select their preferred candidates by casting secret ballots.
  • In legislative bodies, such as the U.S. Congress, a caucus is a group of legislators who organize to discuss, advocate for, or otherwise influence legislation in a way that promotes their common goals and interests.

Caucuses in Elections 

In the United States, an “election cycle” begins the day after the previous general election for a given federal office and ends on the date of the next general election for that office. The number of years in an election cycle differs according to the federal office sought. In the case of presidential elections, for example, the election cycle lasts four years. Long before Election Day, however, potential presidential candidates begin speaking and touring the country, trying to get a feeling of how much public support exists for their candidacy. 

While the importance and influence of third-party candidates should not be discounted, the majority of leading candidates in presidential elections belong to one of two major parties in the United States—the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Both parties select their candidates in nominating conventions which occur in the summer months before the national election in November of the election year. Who the parties select depends on which candidate controls the majority of delegates at the nominating convention. It is these delegates that truly select the party’s candidate. 

Primary elections and far more rarely, caucuses are two main methods by which these candidates are selected. A primary is a method of selecting a candidate similar to that of a general election. It is an organized statewide event put on by the state government where voters cast a secret ballot for the candidate of their choosing. Whoever receives a majority of the votes is declared the winner. In state and local elections, this candidate goes on to run for the office. In a presidential primary, however, the winner is awarded all or a majority number of the state’s delegates to the party nominating convention. Most states hold “closed” party primaries, in which only voters who identify as members of a specific party are allowed to participate.

A caucus is a very different process. Organized by the political parties themselves, caucuses are a “meeting of neighbors”. Groups of citizens come together in local assemblies to discuss who they think will be the party’s best candidate. At the caucus, participants are free to debate the candidates and the issues. In addition, the voting process itself may not be conducted by secret ballot. Instead, caucus-goers may vote by raising their hands or gathering in groups organized by preferred candidates.

As with primaries, caucuses do not directly select a presidential candidate, but rather delegates who are then “pledged” to vote for a particular candidate at the party's national nominating convention.

The use of presidential caucuses and primaries has been a fairly recent development. Historically, only a few states used primaries and caucuses in the U.S. presidential election procedure, instead leaving the choice of the parties’ candidates up to the delegates at their national nominating conventions. Since the 1970s, however, the tendency toward greater public political participation has increased to such an extent that today all states hold either a primary or caucus. Each state is allowed to choose whether it wants to conduct a primary or a caucus.

States That Hold Caucuses

Partly due to the Democratic National Committee’s encouragement to use more efficient state government-run primaries, the number of states that hold caucuses has been dwindling for years. Kansas, Maine, and Hawaii are among the most recent states to switch from a caucus to a primary system, which often allows more people to participate.

Several issues have caused some states to abandon the caucus system in recent years. Results from the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucus, for example, were controversial due to lengthy delays in reporting the final results. The delays, caused in part by problems with a mobile application used to report voting totals, led to the resignation of the Iowa Democratic Party chairman. The further controversy resulted from errors and inconsistencies regarding the calculation and reporting of state delegate equivalents (SDEs) in several caucus locations. After a three-day delay in vote reporting, the Iowa Democratic Party declared that Pete Buttigieg had won two more delegates than Bernie Sanders.

For voters, caucuses involve a major time commitment. The process can take several hours, making it hard for voters who work an evening shift or require a babysitter to participate. 

While most states have now dropped caucuses for primaries, Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming are the exceptions. So why would a state choose a caucus?

Used in various forms in the United States since the 1800s, caucuses not only give voters and grassroots activists an opportunity to make a public argument for their preferred candidate but also to talk about issues that could be incorporated into the state party platform. 

Compared to primaries, caucuses tend to attract more active and enthusiastic party members. Besides a greater commitment of time, attending a caucus requires passion and a stronger connection to a particular candidate, in contrast to the simple act of privately casting a ballot in a primary. Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford, “Caucuses make candidates and potential candidates talk to voters as real, live, individual human beings.” Candidates meet with voters in a more personal way, he added, rather than using them as “campaign props.” Especially in early caucus states like Iowa, a relatively small group of people wields a lot of power to influence average voters around the country in the general election.

Held from January to June during every presidential election year, caucuses are part of the primary election process but unlike primaries are organized by state party officials and not by the state government. In addition, caucuses are generally open only to party members. Caucuses are more like "political events" and demand a higher level of political engagement, time, and participation than primaries. It is therefore not surprising that fewer voters take part in caucuses. 

Typically, only about 10% of registered voters take part in caucuses, compared to about 35% in primaries.

Republican vs. Democratic Caucuses

Ballots are counted following the Republican Party caucus in precinct 317 at Valley Church on February 1, 2016 in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Ballots are counted following the Republican Party caucus in precinct 317 at Valley Church on February 1, 2016 in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

While they are similar and achieve the same ends, the nuts-and-bolts processes of Republican and Democratic caucuses vary greatly. In both cases, specific caucus rules and procedures are created by the parties’ state committees and can thus vary from election to election.

In Republican caucuses, the election process is relatively simple and similar to that in the primaries and general election. After listening to the candidates' speeches and sometimes having the chance to talk to them directly, caucus attendees cast their vote in a secret ballot.

The Democratic caucus election process differs strongly from that of Republican caucuses. Before any voting is done, the total number of voters in attendance is counted. Voters are then asked to separate into groups corresponding to their preferred candidate or to stand in an “undecided” group. This process means voters are publicly displaying their preferences as opposed to the secret ballot used in Republican caucuses. The number of people in each group is then counted and any candidate who doesn't have the support of at least 15% of the total number of voters in attendance is eliminated from the contest. A “realignment" phase then begins in which undecided voters and voters of the removed candidates have the opportunity to either choose another candidate or leave the caucus. The count, eliminate, and realign procedure then continues until only those candidates with over 15% of voters are left. The remaining candidate with the greatest number of voters in their resulting group is declared the winner.

Supporters of democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wait for results to come in at his caucus night watch party on February 03, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Supporters of democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wait for results to come in at his caucus night watch party on February 03, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Caucuses in Legislatures 

A legislative caucus is a group of elected legislators who organize to discuss, advocate for, or otherwise influence legislation in a way that promotes their common goals and interests. Such caucuses are an integral part of the United States Congress as well as the legislatures of all states and U.S. territories.

In both the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, there are general Democratic and Republican caucuses, comprised only of members of their respective parties. These caucuses meet to plan and discuss their party’s legislative agenda, as well as whether to support or oppose legislation put forward by the opposite party. In addition, there is any number of bipartisan caucuses dedicated to numerous special interests such as women’s issues, poverty, civil rights, fair taxation, and the environment. 

In the United States Congress, non-party specific caucuses are formally formed as “congressional member organizations” (CMOs) through the House of Representatives and are governed under the rules of that chamber. In the Senate, all caucuses are informal, and unlike their House counterparts, receive neither official recognition nor funding from the chamber.

In both the House and Senate, non-party specific caucuses are sometimes called coalitions, study groups, task forces, or working groups. They are typically made up of members of both parties and have co-chairs from each party. 

The list of caucuses or CMOs in the 117th Congress as of June 2022 included 47 pages of these groups, ranging from the Bipartisan Working Group to End Domestic Violence, the Childhood Cancer Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Addiction, Treatment, and Recovery Caucus, to the College Football Caucus and the Congressional Cigar Caucus.

Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues

Despite changes in party control, political climate, and ideology over time, the participation of women in America’s political process has consistently made a difference in shaping debate and public policy outcomes in Congress.

Since its organization in 1977, the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues has worked to improve the lives of women and families by proposing and supporting legislation intended to “open the doors of opportunity for women and girls in both school and work.” These legislative efforts have included fair credit, tougher child support enforcement, equitable pay, and retirement income. They have also led efforts to promote women’s health and protect victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, securing several billion dollars in federal funding for these efforts.

While women’s interest groups have greatly impacted the policy process, they have been more successful in addressing issues considered by the general public, and other Congress members, to be issues of “role equity,” rather than “role change.” As a result, many of the legislative solutions that have been pursued are to address gender-based economic inequality and perceived injustice. This is also a result of the Congressional Caucus of Women's Issues being bipartisan, and these issues not falling along party divides.

Congressional Black Caucus

The Congressional Black Caucus was founded in 1971 after the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 1970 Census, which worked in conjunction to allow voting districts to be redrawn—especially in the South—where Blacks had been denied constitutional rights through requirements such as the Jim Crow laws and literacy tests. This burden and opportunity to speak of, advocate for, and legislate around the disparities in the lives of Blacks as citizens of the United States was and continues to be the mission of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Congressional Historic Preservation Caucus 

The bipartisan Congressional Historic Preservation Caucus works to encourage the preservation and thoughtful economic revitalization of America’s historic places as a matter of national policy. In this context, the caucus supports the preservation and economic development by advocating for sensible historic preservation legislation and funding. Through programs such as the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit, historic buildings serve as valuable economic development tools. Heritage tourism, the commercial revitalization of downtowns, and the reuse of historic properties for housing are only a few of the ways that history comes alive. The Caucus supports these important initiatives by championing legislation that advances historic preservation throughout the country.

Congressional Urban Caucus

The mission of the bipartisan Congressional Urban Caucus is to bring together members of Congress who represent the nation’s metropolitan areas to help create a policy roadmap. The members of the Urban Caucus intend to foster discussion about the health of the nation’s metropolitan areas through policy forums, legislative proposals, and advocacy. The caucus works to develop legislation to address problems that plague America’s urban areas, such as poverty, unemployment, crime, pollution, homelessness, and overcrowding. 

Congressional Children's Health Caucus

With the assistance of the National Association of Children’s Hospitals, the bipartisan Congressional Children's Health Caucus is dedicated to building support for legislation that improves the quality of care for children and their access to quality care. The caucus advances legislative initiatives that provide access to health insurance coverage, ensure preventative care, seek cures for debilitating childhood diseases and chronic conditions, and promote healthy living habits for America’s children.

Alternate Uses 

 In political conventions, delegates from different parts or factions of the party may gather as a caucus before the convention. Each caucus may decide how the group would vote on various issues that may come up at the convention. Unless the votes of the caucus are made binding, however, each delegate is still free to vote in any fashion.

The term caucus is also used in labor disputes during collective bargaining, mediation, facilitation, and other forms of alternative distributive dispute resolution. Rather than meeting at a common table, the participants in the caucuses meet in a more private setting to process information, agree on negotiation strategy, confer privately with lawyers or with the mediator, or simply gain "breathing room" after the often emotionally difficult and unproductive interactions that can occur in the common area where all parties are present. In both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the usual term for that concept is "parliamentary party.”

When the term caucus is encountered in modern United Kingdom politics, it is generally used to mean a subgroup, faction, or pressure group within a political party in a similar manner to congressional caucuses in the United States. For example, in 2019 the One Nation Conservatives and Blue Collar Conservatives were established as factions within the Conservative Party, both being described as “caucuses.”

Sources

  • Weigel, David. “Iowa caucuses: Here’s how the voting works.” The Washington Post, February 1, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/01/23/heres-how-the-iowa-caucuses-work/.
  • Redlawsk, David P. “Why Iowa? How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process.” University of Chicago Press, 2011, ISBN 9780226706962.
  • Nelson, Sherice Janaye. “The Congressional Black Caucus: Fifty Years of Fighting for Equality.” Archway Publishing, December 3, 2021, ISBN-10: ‎1665714271.
  • Trish, Barbara. “Inside the Bubble: Campaigns, Caucuses, and the Future of the Presidential Nomination Process.” Routledge, September 21, 2021, ISBN-10: ‎0367429780.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is a Caucus? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2022, thoughtco.com/caucus-definition-and-examples-6281694. Longley, Robert. (2022, August 26). What Is a Caucus? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/caucus-definition-and-examples-6281694 Longley, Robert. "What Is a Caucus? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/caucus-definition-and-examples-6281694 (accessed September 24, 2022).