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Caucuses and Primaries: What Are They, and Why Are They Important?

By Valentino Stradford-

Caucuses and primaries are the electoral events that decide who will be the Democratic and Republican Party’s presidential nominees. The main difference between a caucus and primary is that a caucus is an event in which voters openly discuss and debate to decide who their delegate’s vote will go to. Meanwhile, a primary is the more widespread and common method in which the decision is made by private ballots.

Although caucuses and primaries are the way nominees are selected now, this has only been this case since 1968. The ‘68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago left voters angry and in dismay since the candidate that the majority voted for was not selected. Riots broke out when the party bosses chose Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president. Since then, the results of the primary system have been obeyed as closely as possible.

On  February 1st, the first nomination event on the calendar was held, the Iowa Caucus. Iowa has held the first nomination event spot since 1972 which means that it is subject to heavy campaigning. Winning the Iowa Caucus, as Senator Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton (narrowly) did, gives a candidate such a massive advantage…right? Well, not exactly. According to Professor of Political Science Melissa Michelson, “Winning in Iowa or New Hampshire is important, but often it’s more about doing better or worse than expected…Bill Clinton didn’t win either in 1992, and yet he went on to win the Democratic nomination, and presidency.”

Presidential Candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio.

Presidential Candidates (clockwise, starting on the left): Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio. Photo courtesy of Matthew Wills from http://daily.jstor.org

On a similar note Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate, did not win the caucus, but came in 3rd in Iowa despite poll predictions. This gave him momentum going into the New Hampshire primary. Unfortunately for Mr. Rubio, he lost a lot of steam as a result of his poor performance during the GOP debate held on February 6th, just two days before voters went to the polls, where Mr. Rubio came in not 3rd, but 5th. On the other hand, after the polls closed Sen. Ted Cruz maintained his position in the top three behind Donald Trump and, unexpectedly, Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Despite Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s early importance for the candidates and the parties, it should be noted that those states do not accurately portray a candidate’s electability since those states are predominantly white, at 92% and 94% respectively. However, with populations more representative of the United States as a whole at only 76% and 68%, the Nevada Caucuses and South Carolina primaries should give a better picture of the true presidential nominees. Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, these events are separated into Democrat and Republican. Nevada’s Democrats are voting on February 20th and Republicans are on the 23rd; meanwhile, South Carolina Republicans vote on February 20th and Democrats vote on the 27th. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the expected winners of these events, but anything could happen between now and then.