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How US Presidential Caucus, Primary Process Works


Supporters clap while listening to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, at a campaign event in Maquoketa, Iowa, Jan. 23, 2016.
Supporters clap while listening to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, at a campaign event in Maquoketa, Iowa, Jan. 23, 2016.

The U.S. presidential election cycle is split into two voting phases.

First is the voting for the nomination in primary elections and caucuses, which takes place on different days in different states. Then comes the general election, which takes place on Election Day everywhere in the country.

This is a look at the first phase and what it entails.

How do the Democratic and Republican parties select their presidential nominees?

Presidential primary elections or caucuses are held in each U.S. state and territory as part of the nominating process of U.S. presidential elections. Some states only hold primary elections, some only hold caucuses, and others use a combination of both.

The primaries and caucuses are staggered between January and June before the general election in November.

What is the difference between a primary and a caucus?

The primary elections are run by state and local governments, while caucuses are private events that are directly run by the political parties themselves.

State governments fund and run primary elections in much the same way they do the general election in the fall. Voters go to a polling place, vote and leave.

At a caucus, individuals who are viewed favorably within the party are identified as potential delegates. After a comprehensive discussion and debate, an informal vote is held to determine which individuals will serve as delegates at the national party convention.

What are the types of primary elections and caucuses?

The four most common types of primary elections are open, closed, semi-open and semi-closed. Each state must decide which type it wants to adopt.

Open primaries and caucuses allow all registered voters, regardless of party affiliation, to vote in any party contest. Certain states that use this format may print a single ballot and the voter chooses on the ballot itself which political party's candidates they will select for a contested office.

Closed primaries and caucuses require voters to register with a specific party to be able to vote for that party’s candidates.

Semi-open primaries and caucuses allow any registered voter to vote in any party contest, but when they identify themselves to election officials they must request a party’s specific ballot.

Semi-closed primaries and caucuses follow the same rules as closed ones, but they also allow voters who are not affiliated with a political party to vote.

When are the votes held?

While the dates for primary elections and caucuses can change each year, four votes typically occur before all of the others: the Iowa Republican and Democratic caucuses, followed shortly thereafter by the New Hampshire Democratic and Republican primary elections.

This year, the caucuses in Iowa takes place on Monday, February 1, followed by the New Hampshire primary on February 9.

How do the Iowa caucuses work?

The nation’s first caucus is in the Midwestern state of Iowa. There, Democrats and Republicans meet with their respective party members on the evening of Monday, February 1, to make their presidential picks, to choose delegates and to discuss party platforms.

The meetings take place in schools, restaurants, churches and other public buildings, but also in private homes. Iowa has 1,681 precincts, with Republican Party members meeting in nearly 700 caucus locations this year and Democratic Party members gathering in roughly 1,100, the Des Moines Register reports. Any registered party member can participate in the caucusing, which starts at 7 p.m. local time (1 a.m. Tuesday in GMT). Latecomers might not get in. This year, the Democrats are experimenting with tele-caucusing for Iowa residents temporarily living outside the state, including military personnel.

The biggest difference between the parties’ caucuses is that, while Republicans cast secret votes for a candidate, Democrats physically cluster to show their support for a particular candidate.

A Democratic candidate needs at least 15 percent of the caucus site’s voters to remain viable; otherwise, those voters are persuaded to realign and join another candidate’s cluster. The size of each “preference group” determines how many delegates it can send to county conventions in March. Those delegates eventually will pick from among themselves to determine representatives for the Democrats’ national convention. Republican vote totals are forwarded to GOP state headquarters to determine delegates.

Democrats have no secret ballots in the caucuses, unlike in general elections, CNN points out. And independents have no say whatsoever in caucus outcomes because they can’t participate.

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