What you need to know about caucuses


Liam Al-Hindi

Blackboard background. Words written in chalk, "what does caucus mean?"
Contributor Liam Al-Hindi explains what exactly is a caucus. Illustration by Mars Nevada/the Gateway.

With the Iowa caucuses two weeks ago and the Nevada caucuses up next, caucuses seem to be all anyone is talking about in politics. But what are caucuses, what do they look like and how do they affect our election process?

“Caucuses are meetings that are used in the presidential nomination process in certain states,” said Randall Adkins, Ph.D., a political science professor at UNO. “People get together in groups from their neighborhood in a meeting that occurs at the same time [as the other caucuses in the state] … they decide who they want to support for president.”

Adkins distinguished a caucus from a primary in several ways, chiefly the manner in which they are organized, as a primary is conducted far faster than a caucus.

“Caucuses generally have a lower turnout than primaries do, because people have to be committed to show up at a caucus,” Adkins said.

Adkins said that the Iowa caucuses are collective, with each precinct within the state having its own individual caucus meeting. People are selected from the precinct-wide caucuses to go to a county meeting, and from there, people are selected for a state meeting. This is specifically how Iowa operates.

“It’s like running for president—in 50 different states,” Adkins said.

Adkins also said that caucuses do not have a high attendance rate and are “influenced by people who have very strong feelings [and are] passionate about their candidate.”

Jeffrey Ketcham, an Iowa resident, attended his district’s caucus this year.

“I felt that this election was far too important to not be involved with every part of the process,” Ketcham said. “I felt good about participating. I even volunteered to be an alternate delegate for my candidate should our selected delegates not be able to attend the convention in March.”

Delegates, as Adkins said, are usually party members who attend the convention that’s held at the next level.

This was Ketcham’s first caucus, but it was his first as a registered Democrat.

“The striking feeling about the caucus is that you’re very publicly announcing your political preference,” Ketcham said. “Where in a vote, you pull the curtain and vote in seclusion, in a caucus you’re very openly saying, ‘I’m with them.’ And in certain circumstances, trying to persuade others to join you.”

Ketcham said this level of involvement “felt like a neighborhood meeting.”

“I saw people that live on my block, neighbors, friends, some that I’ve been involved with Neighborhood Associations and the such. And then I’d get little reminders of the scope and stakes of what we were doing,” Ketcham said.

Both Ketcham and Adkins used a word that encapsulates the value of the caucuses—momentum.

“Getting that initial momentum boost is important to any campaign, especially any candidate that is seen as non-traditional,” Ketcham said.

“You [a candidate] want to be able to go and say ‘I’ve got momentum … I just won this event, you should come and vote for me in New Hampshire because the people in Iowa voted for me,’”Adkins said.

The results of the caucuses truly influence a particular candidate’s success in their campaign. Adkins spoke to the candidates’ stake in the caucuses as centered around “free news coverage,” which also greatly impacts their success.

Adkins also spoke about UNO students, and more broadly, people of that age and generation:

“The age that votes in the highest percentage [is] senior citizens – it’s not students. [Senior citizens] are retired, they have wealth and income, they understand how the process works and they feel like they have a lot at stake. They have time. Students are often the opposite. They’re busy, they don’t understand how the process works, they don’t have a lot of wealth or income, so they don’t feel like they have a lot at stake in the process. But I would argue that students have the most at stake. Because you, as students, have a much longer future than your parents do, or your grandparents do. So, you should educate yourselves and participate in the process, whether that’s caucuses or voting or donating money to a candidate or writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper.”

Ketcham said that for him, the caucus was about “participating, getting off the sidelines and taking a stand.”