On February 4 2020, the American political news cycle was dominated with news of chaos and delayed results after Iowa’s caucus the previous day; Iowans were the first to cast primary votes in the relatively uncommon format of a caucus, drawing election-year attention toward that facet of the primary process.
What is a caucus, and how is it different from a primary?
Voters in most states are accustomed to a standard primary, not unlike voting in the general election in November of an election year. Caucuses are, by contrast, more complex and less common.
According to Ballotpedia, procedures differ somewhat, but the underlying process is similar in caucuses:
A caucus is a political party gathering in which party members choose candidates for an election. At a caucus, participants may debate about the candidates; in addition, 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 preferred candidate. A primary election, by contrast, is a state-administered election in which voters select their preferred candidates by casting secret ballots.
Historically, caucuses were the dominant method by which the major political parties determined their presidential nominees. Today, caucuses are less common than primary elections. However, political parties in some states, such as Iowa, still conduct caucuses as part of the presidential nominating process. In 2016, 35 U.S. jurisdictions (including states and territories) held a presidential preference primary to allocate convention delegates to both parties’ presidential candidates. In 13 jurisdictions, both parties held caucuses where party members gathered in precinct or county meetings to vote for delegates to a state convention that ultimately selected national convention delegates. Eight jurisdictions utilized a divided process in which one party held a primary to allocate delegates and the other conducted a caucus or convention. The Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, the governing bodies for the nation’s two major parties, establish their own guidelines for the presidential nomination process.
Supporters of caucuses claim the process enables candidates with less notoriety but ardent grassroots support or compelling positions have a stronger chance of having their platform heard. Critics say that caucuses are needlessly time-consuming, and a barrier to participation for people less committed to casting a vote — in part because caucusgoers do not just cast a vote and go home. Both critics and supporters emphasize the role of passionate participation in powering the process of caucusing:
They also attract enthusiastic party members. Caucusing requires passion and a strong connection to a particular candidate, in contrast to the simple and private act of marking a ballot in a primary. “[The Iowa caucuses] make candidates and potential candidates talk to voters as real, live, individual human beings,” [Dennis Goldford, a political science professor with Drake University in Iowa] said. Candidates meet with voters in a more personal way, he added, rather than using them as “campaign props.” Especially in early caucus states, a relatively small group of people wields a lot of power to influence average voters around the country.
Why is focus primarily on Democrats in terms of 2020 caucuses?
In 2020, the Democratic primary field was populated by a number of candidates — among them Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. The eventual winner would challenge incumbent United States President Donald Trump in November 2020. Although Trump had some primary competition, he was considered the presumptive nominee for 2020.
Which states will hold a caucus in 2020?
According to the Council on Foreign Relations on January 13 2020, the number of caucuses in total dropped between 2016 and 2020. Five states and four territories planned to caucus in 2020:
In 2020, just a handful of states — Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada, North Dakota, and Wyoming — and U.S. territories — American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — are holding caucuses.
That list was similar to one published by the New York Times on February 4 2020, with the omission of Kentucky. Kansas, Hawaii, and Maine all switched from caucuses to primaries in 2020:
The number of states that hold caucuses has been dwindling for years, in part at the encouragement of the Democratic National Committee to use a government-run primary. Kansas, Maine and Hawaii are among the latest states to opt for a primary system, which often allows more people to participate than caucuses.
In 2016, Democrats in Kentucky voted in a primary and Republicans caucused, presumably the reason CFR and the New York Times had slightly different lists.
Even before 2016, the number of states participating in caucuses have been dwindling every year. As of 2013, as many as 15 states held a caucus for at least one party. By 2016, roughly 14 states and several U.S. territories held some form of party caucus in lieu of a primary. And as the New York Times noted in April 2019:
Already, the three largest caucus states — Washington, Minnesota and Colorado — have flipped to primaries. So have Utah, Idaho and Nebraska.
Two more caucus states — Alaska and Hawaii — are using party-run, rather than government-run, primaries. This switch can increase participation and turnout to levels somewhat more like in a traditional primary, depending on how they are administered.
That leaves just six caucus states: Iowa and Nevada — the two highest-turnout caucuses, with Nevada being the only caucus the establishment favorite Hillary Clinton won in 2008 — and Kansas, North Dakota, Wyoming and Maine.
Maine is considering the switch, and North Dakota has switched to a so-called firehouse caucus, which is not obviously different from a government-run primary except that it has limited sites.
In at least two states in 2016, one party held a primary and the other a caucus [PDF]:
Some states have both primaries and caucuses. For example, in Alaska and Nebraska, Republicans hold primaries while Democrats convene caucuses. In Kentucky, Democrats hold a primary and Republicans a caucus.
Why did states switch from holding caucuses to primaries for Democrats after 2016?
According to FiveThirtyEight, caucus chaos led to calls for reform, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) changed the rules as a result:
And during the 2016 Democratic nomination contest, chaotic caucuses created even more complications. Controversy erupted right from the start when it was discovered that there was no mechanism for holding a recount in the Iowa caucuses, sparking an outcry from Bernie Sanders supporters who said the election was rigged to favor Hillary Clinton. Iowa and other Democratic caucus states also struggled to handle huge crowds of voters looking to make their voices heard. In reaction, the Democratic National Committee changed its rules in an effort to make nomination contests more inclusive, and many 2016 caucus states will hold primaries in the 2020 Democratic nomination contest — a change that could have ramifications for voter turnout as well as for which candidates have an edge in those states.
Are any other 2020 caucuses likely to be in the news?
Anything could happen. Nevada’s caucus followed Iowa on February 22 2020, although as previously reported, Democratic party officials there affirmed that they would not use the app used for reporting in Iowa’s caucuses. Democrats in the states of Iowa, Nevada, North Dakota, and Wyoming were the only ones caucusing in 2020.