What does a caucus entail?


Published: Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 12:18 a.m.

Victor Chew got through reading a four-page analysis on the difference between a primary election and a caucus and realized he was no closer to understanding than when he started.

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Chew

Facts

Who wants to know?

  • * Name: Victor Chew
  • Age: 85

  • Occupation:Retired mathematical statistician

  • Residence: Gainesville

Chew wrote to Since You Asked for some clarity.

"The convention to select presidential candidates was called a caucus in Iowa and a primary in New Hampshire," Chew said. "The next ones in Nevada and Michigan were called a caucus and a primary, respectively. Can someone give me a simple explanation of what the difference is? Why does it matter?"

Primaries, such as the one Florida will hold on Tuesday, let party members in a state individually select their preferred presidential nominee by casting ballots in polling places.

Rules for caucuses vary greatly from state to state, but typically involve party members in a given precinct meeting in an auditorium, a school or even a private home to informally discuss candidates and then to voice their preference for a given candidate, said University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith. Voters must attend this meeting to make their preference known, unlike many primary states, which allow early and absentee voting.

In Iowa, voters on caucus night make their preference known by dividing themselves into groups in the room based on which candidate they've chosen.

But the voting process doesn't stop there.

"It's a much more fluid, interactive process," Smith said. "You make your preference public, and then party members can proceed to lobby one another to move from one candidate to another."

As for why it matters, Smith said it's hard to say how the nominating system in a particular state affects its turnout and other factors.

Smith said he doesn't know of any studies indicating that caucuses, with their rigid requirements and longer time commitments, dampen turnout.

"It's difficult to generalize without controlling for other factors," Smith said. "Many of the states that have caucuses have smaller, more homogeneous populations, and we know that there's a high correlation between turnout and factors like race, income and education."

Smith said candidates tailor their campaign techniques to the time of year a nominating event is held rather than the type of nominating system a state uses.

"Often, we understand caucuses as embodying quintessential retail politics - candidates meeting voters in someone's home, in a school cafeteria, in a local church or synagogue," Smith said. "That's how we understand the process of campaigning for caucus votes. But that's more reflective of the unique status of Iowa being the first election in the nominating system. The caucus is merely a different way of people coming together to make their preference known."

Amy Reinink can be reached at 352-374-5088 or reinina@gvillesun.com.

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