Caucuses and Primaries

We have said much in the past about the importance of an informed citizenry in a democracy. In American politics many terms and ideas are often thrown around but many people do not really understand what they mean and why they are important. Such is the case with the Caucuses and Primaries in US politics. I have asked many of my college students if they understand these terms and many did not know. I assured them that I did not fault them or would not penalize them for not knowing. But this was merely proof that we must do a better job in American schools to ensure that students are informed of their civic duties and are provided with all of the tools needed for them to make informed decisions when voting for representatives and our elected officials. The No Child Left Behind legislation authorized in 2002 by George W. Bush called for standards based education that pushed for an emphasis on math and language arts. However, this pushed other subjects like the arts and social studies by the wayside. To help compensate for the lack of social studies teaching we will briefly outline some details and important information explaining caucuses and primaries, offering some details about the topic. We will also provide some resources and lessons for teachers to use in their classrooms to teach about the topic.

First things First: What is a Caucus and a primary?
are a method wherein some states chose to vote for one of the major party’s presidential candidate. Caucuses hearken back to a different era where political contests were more localized. The phenomenon is described as “gatherings of neighbors.” People do not go to polls and and cast their ballots, but gather publicly at a set location to cast an open vote. The voting venues are public spaces such as schools, churches, public libraries, or even local residences. Caucuses differ from primaries. A major difference between the two is that in primaries people participate in a secret ballot. Caucuses are an open ballot. Also for primaries, each state votes for democratic or republican candidate for the presidency.

“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. “

The Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary
“Although only a few delegates are chosen in the New Hampshire primary, its real importance comes from the massive media coverage it receives (along with the first caucus in Iowa). Since 1952, the primary has been a major testing ground for candidates for both the Republican and Democratic nominations.”

Here is a lesson to help students learn more about these processes.

What are the Primaries and Caucuses? – Lesson Plan


  1. Ahhhhhhh how timely! While informed citizens know the difference between a caucus and a primary, so many have no idea where they diverge. I have friends and colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and I am fortunate they are both equally as vehement, equally as passionate, and equally as articulate. It is so incredibly important to make the attempt to see both sides of an issue, because at the end of the day- we are all Americans- voting on issues and candidates that will determine the shape and tenor of our lives. Even though caucuses are a throw-back, they really hearken to the heart of early American politics- when voting was a privilege and a social occasion, and oftentimes a whole day affair. Caucuses are more like political rallies mixed with musical chairs, and I have thoroughly enjoyed watching one of my high school classmates become so enmeshed in the Democratic Party nominations, and I get to follow along. He makes the retail politics of CA and even national politics fascinating, if expletive-filled. And I think America could use some directed passion like his- especially as we make the hard turn into a general election year.

  2. We spent a lot of time on the difference between the two in my practicum classroom this year, especially after all of the controversy surrounding the result. Kids had a lot of questions about the process which made not just teaching this concept easier than it would be in a non-election year, but also tying it back to some of the other major concepts like voter registration and how candidates are chosen.

    I don’t think this is an especially hard thing to teach kids but I do think it’s something that is difficult to motivate them to learn about when it is only somewhat relevant for perhaps 2 weeks every 4 year cycle. Especially in non-election years, learning about caucuses is a perfect opportunity to get students out of their seats by participating in a mock version. It will be more memorable than just reading about it, and will help the unique aspects of it sink in a little better when they can see it in action.

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