What’s the difference between a caucus and a primary?

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Author's Note

Our mission as HowStuffWorks writers is to explain complicated things in uncomplicated ways. Often the topic is something highly technical, like the Internet or electric cars. And sometimes, like today's assignment, it's perversely political. The caucus process is one of those subjects that defies a simple answer. Each state that organizes a caucus does so under its own arcane rules and archaic methods. Supporters of the caucus system argue that the super-local nature of the caucus is one of the last bastions of grassroots politics. Critics say that the eccentricities of the caucus system effectively exclude all but the most "activist" voters, resulting in a skewed selection process. I say, scrap both caucuses and primaries and bring on the cage fighting.

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  • PBS NewsHour. "The Primary versus the Caucus." December 15, 2003 (April 24, 2012) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/vote2004/primaries/sr_primary_caucus.html
  • Praetorius, Dean. The Huffington Post. "What Is a Caucus? How the Iowa Caucus Works." January 3, 2012 (April 24, 2012) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/03/what-is-a-caucus-iowa-2012_n_1181069.html
  • Redlawski, David P.; Tolbert, Caroline J.; and Donovan, Todd. Why Iowa? Why Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process. "Iowa Caucus Rules." University of Chicago, 2011. http://www.whyiowa.org/Why Iowa Chapter 3.pdf
  • Seelye, Katherine Q. The New York Times. "Romney's Victory in the Maine Caucuses Is at Risk." February 16, 2012 (April 23, 2012) http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/16/romneys-victory-in-the-maine-caucuses-is-at-risk/
  • The Takeaway. "What's the Difference Between a Caucus and a Primary?" February 7, 2012 (April 22, 2012) http://www.thetakeaway.org/2012/feb/07/whats-difference-between-caucus-and-primary/
  • Washington State Democrats. "2012 Caucuses and Conventions" (April 24, 2012) http://www.wa-democrats.org/caucuses