Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Get 2 limited-edition podcast mugs when you make a sustaining gift of $8 or more per month today!

Caucuses Or Primaries? Why States Might Pick One Or The Other


There is still no declared winner in the Iowa caucuses. Pete Buttigieg remains ahead of Bernie Sanders in a very close contest, with 86% of precincts now reporting. But with that contest almost behind us, there are just a handful of caucuses left in this presidential nominating season.


That's because since 2016, a number of states have switched from caucuses to primaries, in part due to encouragement from the Democratic National Committee. Minnesota, Kansas, Maine and Utah are among the states that are making the switch. For more on the pros and cons of each type of contest, we called on Caitlin Jewitt. She's a political scientist at Virginia Tech. She focuses on campaigns and elections. We began with why caucuses still exist, despite all the criticism.

CAITLIN JEWITT: Proponents of caucuses often say that it is deliberative democracy at its finest. It is the chance for people to show up and talk to their neighbors about politics, have informed conversation, talk to representatives from the campaigns and be persuaded, right? It is very much in the vein of town hall meetings. It is a type of democratic event that the Founding Fathers would have been much more familiar with than a primary election conducted with secret ballots.

CORNISH: Does the modern-day critique reflect just - I don't know - all the changes in demographics, all the people who can vote, all the other complications of modern-day life that are making it seem outdated?

JEWITT: I think so. And we've definitely seen, over the course of history, a trend towards more democracy, more voter participation. Americans now expect to have a say in the process and for their voice to be counted. And many people feel that that doesn't happen adequately in caucuses.

CORNISH: How come?

JEWITT: Because so few people show up...


JEWITT: ...That people need to spend hours on a Monday evening talking about the candidates and standing in a gymnasium waiting for people to literally count how many people are standing in the corner of the room, perhaps hiring a babysitter to stay home with their kids - that that feels undemocratic to many.

CORNISH: Is there a big difference in turnout between the two styles of voting?

JEWITT: Yes, there is. Turnout is much higher in primary elections. Some of my research shows that controlling for other factors - like whether the nomination is competitive, the date of the contest, the number of candidates - that primaries, on average, have a turnout rate that is about 19 percentage points higher than caucuses.

CORNISH: Now, I want to talk about the last couple of days because since, frankly, the debacle in Iowa Monday night, a lot of people are raising the issue of election security. Have some states switched to primaries citing that issue, just the concept of security?

JEWITT: No, that is not one of the reasons that we often hear states saying that they're going to switch to a primary. Often, states will say that they're switching from a caucus to a primary to encourage participation or turnout among their voters. It takes less time for people to show up at a primary election and cast a ballot than it does to go to a caucus meeting.

CORNISH: Minnesota gave this reason, right?

JEWITT: They did, yes.

CORNISH: What do you make of all the talk of the demise of the Iowa caucuses, so to speak? Are the problems with the app really going to put an end to this tradition?

JEWITT: I don't think so, right? It depends on what happens. We'll see where the 2020 nomination goes, but there are frequently calls for Iowa to lose its privileged position in the calendar or predictions that this will be the last year for the Iowa caucuses, and it hasn't happened yet. Also, I would say it will depend on who wins the nomination. Buttigieg had a good night as far as we know so far in Iowa on Monday night. You can imagine that if he becomes the Democratic nominee and then goes on to win the general election, his supporters, his campaign are not going to advocate that Iowa lose its position.

CORNISH: That's Caitlin Jewitt, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech.

Thanks so much.

JEWITT: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.