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Definition: caucus 1 from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1760) : a closed meeting of a group of persons belonging to the same political party or faction usu. to select candidates or to decide on policy; also : a group of people united to promote an agreed-upon cause


Summary Article: Caucus Elections from Political Encyclopedia of U.S. States and Regions

In contemporary politics, a caucus election is generally a small, open meeting of political party members at which they choose delegates to the national party convention. Caucuses are also sometimes used to fill local and state offices that come open prior to an election. Caucuses were once the dominant form of choosing delegates to select party presidential candidates, but less than 30 percent of the states now use this process.

The History of Caucus Elections

The use of caucus elections has evolved over American history. During the early decades of the 19th century, congressmen would meet informally to name presidential candidates, in what was called a King Caucus. Once political parties became formal institutions in the 1830s, state leaders demanded a greater role in selecting delegates from the local level to the newly established state and national party conventions. Because these meetings were tightly controlled by party leaders, reformers in the early years of the 20th century introduced the direct primary, which allowed the direct selection of delegates for presidential nominees. Today, only 14 states use caucus elections to choose delegates: Alaska, Colorado, Hawai‘i, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Nevada, North Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming. Minnesota and Texas use mixed primary-caucus systems.

Caucus Procedures

The rules governing caucuses differ among the parties. At Republican caucuses, voters typically gather at the caucus site and cast a ballot for a specific candidate, with a majority vote determining the winner. Democrats often have a more complicated process. Here, caucus members gather in preference groups supporting a particular candidate, and they are also able to generate planks, or issue positions, for the party platform. Depending on the number of delegates allotted to the caucus meeting, these preference groups must have a minimum number of members in order to be viable. If a group cannot reach this minimum, its members can either realign with another group, supporting another candidate, or leave the caucus. Delegates are awarded to preference groups (and their candidates) in proportion to the support each group receives.

Although the openness of caucus elections has made them similar to primaries in some ways, there are still important distinctions. In contrast to primaries, which are run by states, caucuses are planned, funded, and promoted by a party committee whose members are typically elected at the preceding caucus. Primaries are conducted by secret ballot, but at a caucus one's voting intentions are usually made publicly, often during a roll call taken at the beginning of the caucus. Electioneering and political speeches, which are restricted from the polls in a direct election, are encouraged so that caucus participants can attempt to sway each other. The entire process typically demands hours of commitment.

The unique nature of caucus elections demands a well-rooted, well-connected grassroots organization, banded together by a cause and a candidate symbolic of that cause. In contrast, primaries are focused on promoting turnout among party faithful who can easily express their partisan loyalty through the simple act of voting. This does not require the sort of time-intensive one-on-one communication, persuasion, detailed explanation, and planned participation required of a caucus. Raising large sums of money and purchasing expensive statewide mass media advertising is far more critical to the promotion of primary turnout than in a caucus, which rewards passion and organization.

Pros and Cons of Caucuses

Supporters of caucuses point out that they are demonstrations of direct democracy that encourage participants to discuss political issues and build consensus around candidates. Critics, in contrast, say that they suppress voter participation because only those who can attend the meeting have their voices heard. They also note that because caucuses attract party loyalists and only the most motivated voters, they often reflect entrenched party power and do not necessarily represent the preferences of most state voters.

Michael S. Belle
Bibliography and Further Reading
  • Thompson, C. S. “The Rise and Fall of the Congressional Caucus as a Machine for Nominating Candidates for the Presidency.” In The Caucus System in American Politics, edited by Stein., Leon New York: Arno Press, 1974.
  • Whitridge, Frederick W. “Caucus System.” In The Caucus System in American Politics, edited by Stein., Leon New York: Arno Press, 1974.
© 2009 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

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