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Refresher Course: Why does the U.S. hold primary elections and caucuses?

Voters the Amherst polls on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2020.
Allegra Boverman
Voters at the Amherst polls on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2020 for the New Hampshire presidential primaries.

Every other Tuesday, Civics 101 hosts, Hannah McCarthy and Nick Capodice, join NHPR’s All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa to talk about how our democratic institutions actually work.

New Hampshire held its presidential primary election Tuesday. In the coming weeks, other states will hold their own primaries and caucuses as well. Nick and Julia talk about why and how we select presidential candidates through popular choice.

You can listen to Civics 101 here, or wherever you get your podcasts.


In the U.S., most states hold primary elections and some hold caucuses. Why do we even have these contests before the general elections? 

Well, this is a relatively recent phenomenon, Julia. And I want to start with the fact that there are plenty of democracies around the world, but none of them—-outside of us—let the people, the voting public, choose who a nominee is for a party. Nobody does it like us.

So in the U.S., we used to let the political party elites choose a candidate. We'd have primaries, but those were just to sort of gauge public opinion. And that's how we did everything until 1968, where there was a famous brawl at the Democratic National Convention when the party nominated Hubert Humphrey as the candidate, even though he had only 2% of the vote in the primaries. So both parties eventually ceded to a new normal, which is, the people of each state of each party choose their favorite candidate, and the winner in each state sends a number of delegates to the national convention, who will eventually vote for that candidate to be the nominee.

Nick, most people know what primary elections are, but caucuses are a little more complicated. How does a caucus work? And how can a candidate win them? 

Yeah, caucuses are fascinating and they're rare, Julia. Only four states have caucuses, as well as Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa. First off, [the] biggest difference is that the parties run a caucus and the state runs a primary. There's no federal regulation about either of these. But caucuses, most famously we have the Iowa caucus, which happened very recently, is the first nominating event held in the country each election. Unlike primaries, where you fill in an oval next to somebody's name, caucuses are done in public. Groups of people in gymnasiums, libraries, etc., the people in your district of your party get together and they vote for a candidate.

Now the parties do it differently. In the Republican caucus, the voters put a name and a piece of paper in a box. And in the Democratic Party caucus, you actually have to stand in part of the room to signify your preferred candidate. And people can move around the gym or the library or whatever, and they can try to convince other people to come over to their corner. It's like [a] very public democracy.

Primaries and caucuses change every year and they’re notably different this year, especially on the Democratic side. Why is that?

Well, as to why, it really depends on who you ask. The Democratic National Committee, the DNC, said the first-in-the-nation primary would not be in New Hampshire, as in years and years before, but South Carolina. The reason given by the DNC was that New Hampshire and Iowa were not representative of the nation as a whole, and they shouldn't have so much power.

Now, Iowa complied to the DNC’s wishes, and at their Democratic caucus, they didn't vote. They just talked party business. They did not pick a nominee. New Hampshire did not comply and is indeed having the primary today, like right now. Go vote. But as a result, President Joe Biden will not appear on the ballot. He did not file in New Hampshire in accordance with the DNC wishes, though there is a write-in campaign to encourage voters to put his name in regardless. So we don't know what's going to happen, but I am awaiting [the results] with bated breath.

Michelle Liu is the All Things Considered producer at NHPR. She joined the station in 2022 after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
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