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. I too was never taught about the differences between a Caucus and a primary. Growing up in a state that held primaries, Caucuses were never brought up in any of my social study lessons. I thank Dr. Child for clearing up what a Caucus is and am looking forward to researching more on its importance. I believe that everyone should know how our political systems work in our country to become a better-informed voter. It is important to know how one’s vote is accounted for and why it is so important that we vote. More emphasis needs to be placed on these issues in our education system.

  2. It pains me to say it, but I as well wasn’t taught the difference between coxes and primaries. I am a little appalled that I am so far in my schooling career and I was deprived of the simple knowledge. It was very interesting to learn about how the caucuses and primaries, I feel are so different. I agree with the others Who have commented before me saying that, it’s difficult to teach if you don’t participate in the caucus. However, I believe that I should teach my future students about these to and how they differ, and why they matter. It is one of my personal beliefs that this is a part of someone’s culture. It will be my job as a history teacher to respect this culture and help the kids understand its importance. To teach this concept, I think that a KWL chart would be great for before, during and after reading!

  3. Great timing for this article! I love it very much due to the fact that I also have no idea those terms, especially Caucuses. I have most definitely not been taught this and more importantly the difference between the two. I have always been a little lost as to the point of the primaries, but always tried to listen to them. This absolutely clarified some things for me as a voter in every election. I have never done the method of voting Caucus and have always done it in a secret ballot form. I believe it would be interesting to sit at a meeting where the other method is being used so see the different discussions and true outcome the citizens would have in my community. I think I have an idea of what that outcome would be, but it would be interesting to hear directly from the people who feel that way.

  4. I do not believe I was taught the difference between a caucus and a primary even in AP Government. I have always been confused as to what they are and how they differ. I figured there was a difference but I never knew what it was. This article was super helpful in helping clear up the confusion I had about the two. I believe that students should be taught about the difference and the importance from a young age because this is something they will need in their future.

  5. Coming from a state that there is only primaries, the word caucus seems foreign to me. While in school at a young age, as well as attending a college where primaries were held, that is all that was taught. Yet, this shouldn’t be the only thing being taught because a caucus holds the same importance in America in a primary, as well as a lot more participation. Being able to vote you hold a big responsibility, and should take action in voting. For the primaries, all you have to do is go sit down fill in paper, put it in a machine and leave but for a caucus there are no pool brother and ballots, you gather as a group and stand and show who you are voting for which is known as an open vote. This is something students should know about as well because they are still holding their American Citizenship by using their right to vote. This process is a lot longer, which shows how into the process the individuals are. To teach this in the classroom, I liked the idea on the lesson plan is to allow the students to use each type in class about a class president or something. This will allow the students to see the differences as well as see the idea around it all. In the end, I feel as both, caucus and primaries, are important to learn as they are both ways to see America works.

  6. Shamefully, I have to admit that this is actually the first year that I have heard about the caucuses. To cut myself some slack from not being such an informed citizen, I am not much of a tv person and do not typically ever watch local channels! I completely agree with your statement about doing a better job of informing students about this especially in high school because by senior year, most will be able to vote. It is very interesting how caucuses work when it comes to voting considering that it is an open ballot and people do not go to polls. I know that at the Iowa Caucus this year, it did not go very well when it came to figuring out who won because they tried to change how people were turning in their votes. It makes me wonder if someday they will do away with caucuses and only have primaries because caucuses have become less common than primaries!

  7. This article really made me reflect on the way in which many of us learned about the importance of voting when we are in grade school, yet we weren’t ever informed about what participating in a Caucus is and how it differs from a Primary. I understand the argument some may make that because Kentucky and Ohio vote using a secret ballot, it is kind of irrelevant to teach young students from this area about Caucuses, referred to in the article as “an open ballot” and “gatherings of neighbors”. Nevertheless, in my opinion, educating and encouraging kids to be civically engaged citizens without informing them of all of the tools and methods is insufficient. I have always loved politics and current events, and I would have been so intrigued learning more about relevant topics growing up.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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