How Primaries Work vs Caucuses: Two Meetings of the Minds


Let’s say your family needs to figure out where you're going out for dinner - how would you come to a decision? Does everyone write down their vote on a piece of a paper, which is then tallied up? Or do you have a discussion, letting people state their thoughts and change their minds before a clear winner is determined? 


These two systems aren’t too far off from how primaries and caucuses work. Primaries are done through secret ballot votes while caucuses are public votes with lots switching between sides as debates go on. They’re two very different methods at achieving the same goal of finding out which candidate a party should back.

How Primaries Work vs Caucuses 

A primary election is fairly indistinguishable from standard elections: voters show up and secretly cast their ballots. Meanwhile, a caucus is more like a debate. People discuss issues and try to sway others to support their candidate. There can be several rounds of voting with people switching sides until a final vote is called. 

How It Works

Every election cycle, the Democratic and Republican parties need to determine who their presidential candidates are going to be. Thus, over the course of one year, states hold different types of elections to determine this. These elections are either primaries or caucuses.

Caucuses might seem like a weird way to decide matters since they’re so different from the general election, but originally, most states held caucuses. Primaries weren’t introduced until the early 1900s and states didn’t really begin to switch to holding them until the late 1960s. Nowadays, most states hold primaries, but there are still a handful that use caucuses. As a result, people tend to refer to these elections collectively as either primary elections or primaries. To avoid confusion though, we’ll refer to them as “caucuses and primaries” when speaking generally on these elections.

The differences between primaries and caucuses don’t stop at the way they are held. Since they’re funded differently, they have different rules on who can participate in them. Primaries are paid for by the state and local governments while caucuses are funded by their specific political parties. As a result, caucuses are closed events for only registered party members. For example, only Democrats can vote at Iowa’s Democratic caucuses. 

Meanwhile primaries can be either open or closed. A closed primary is like a caucus in that only registered party members can cast a ballot. Open primaries mean that anyone, regardless of party affiliation, can vote whichever way they want. This means that in Illinois’ open primaries, a Democrat could vote on the Republican ballot or vice versa, and even undeclared or unaffiliated voters get to vote too. Some states, like New Hampshire, have semi-closed primaries. This means that unaffiliated voters can vote how they wish, but registered Democrats and Republicans have to stick to their parties.

Despite all their differences, caucuses and primaries are trying to figure out which of the candidates are most viable for the presidential election. After a state’s caucuses or primaries are held, the state determines how many delegates a candidate receives. All states have their own rules for this. Once every state has finished this election process, it’s time to determine who will be the parties’ presidential nominee. Democrats and Republicans hold their own national convention where the delegates decide who the party’s presidential candidate will be. 

Why Care?

While these elections both serve to find the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, it’s important to distinguish between primaries and caucuses. Because they’re two inherently different ways of voting, they show data beyond which candidate should represent a given party.

For example, caucuses can take several hours to finish up with their debates and multiple voting rounds. Thus, a large majority of caucus-goers are very dedicated voters. The results one gets from caucuses are liable to be skewed to a particular candidate. On the other hand, primary elections aren’t infallible either. Closed elections completely eliminate unaffiliated voters, who play an important role in the presidential election. Even semi-closed elections don’t show who the overall most popular candidate is. Open primaries can encourage opposite party members to vote for a worse candidate so that their own party’s candidate is more likely to win in the presidential election.

It’s not all bad though. Caucuses are cheaper for the state to host and they can be more personal and allow for voters to really know who they’re voting for. Primaries mimic the general election, and since they’re shorter than caucuses, they can find out the opinions of more people. Each system has its own flaws and merits that need to be considered when tallying the results.

Think Further

Think Further

  1. Do you think your state should hold primaries or caucuses or maybe both? Why?
  2. Do you think states will one day switch to holding all primaries? Why or why not?
  3. Which type of primaries – open, closed, or semi-closed – do you prefer? Why?


Get updated about new videos!



Learn More

Learn More
  1. Hersh, Eitan. “Primary Voters Versus Caucus Goers and the Peripheral Motivations of Political Participation.” Political Behavior, vol 34, 2012, pp 689-718. DOI: 10.1007/s11109-011-9175-8.
  2. Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Primary election.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 5 January 2015.
  3. Montanaro, Domenico. “How Exactly Do The Iowa Caucuses Work?” NPR, 30 January 2016.
  4. Norwood, Candice. “Presidential caucuses are complicated. Why do some states use them?” PBS News Hour, 9 January, 2020.