Every presidential election year in the United States, political party members have the opportunity to nominate the candidate or candidates they believe are most electable in a general election held in November. Some states hold primary elections on predetermined dates, while others, most notably Iowa, hold special election meetings known as caucuses. While both methods produce delegates pledged to popular candidates, there are a number of differences between a caucus and a primary. A primary election is usually set up like a general election, while a caucus is more like a town meeting, and involves free discussion and debate among voters.
One difference between a caucus and a primary is the amount of time participants must contribute to the process. A primary election is often modeled after a general election, with public polling places set up to receive eligible voters. These voters are generally given ballots with only the candidates of their declared political parties listed. A primary election is not a general election, only a means of determining the popularity of partisan candidates. The voting process may only take a few minutes as individual voters make their selection behind a closed voting booth.
A caucus, on the other hand, is often patterned after a town hall meeting. Eligible voters are encouraged to appear at designated caucus sites, each designated by party affiliation. Local Democrats may meet at a school library, for instance, while Republicans may meet at a fire hall. During a caucus, voters may initially sit at tables bearing the names of all the party's candidates. Those who initially support Candidate A sit at one table, while supporters of Candidates B and C sit at others.
During the actual caucus, certain party members are allowed to speak in favor of their preferred candidates. Voters are free to discuss their views amongst themselves, and can shift their support by moving to a different table. This process can go on for a few hours until a final vote is tallied. The results of this vote, reported precinct by precinct, show which candidate received the largest percentage of the vote, and therefore the greater number of committed delegates.
Another difference between a caucus and a primary is the amount of time candidates may spend campaigning in the state. The Iowa caucus, for example, is viewed as an important watershed moment in a politician's aspirations towards higher office. Voters in a caucus voluntarily spend hours in spirited political debates, so most candidates realize how important it is to provide real answers and insight into the smallest details of their platform. There can be considerably more face time spent in a caucus state than a primary state, since television and radio ads can often reach individual voters who participate in primaries.
Considering the amount of time and effort which must be spent organizing and participating in a caucus, it is not surprising that the majority of states now use a primary election system. States which continue to use the caucus election system tend to be smaller in population and more tradition-oriented. Many Iowa voters take personal pride in their political savvy and their right to hold open debates on the merits of individual candidates, an opportunity provided by a longstanding caucus election system.