Caucus vs Primary - what are the meaningful differences?

As a Canadian, I have always found two aspects of American politics confusing - the electoral college (for POTUS) and the various state caucuses and primaries held on the way to a presidential election. I am hoping you can help me understand caucuses and primaries.

More than once, I have tried to understand what the differences are between caucuses and primaries. In fact, before making this OP I tried yet again at both this site and this site, and am still not sure I appreciate the difference (sure, I get that there are differences in the process but, is that it? Are there any more substantive differences?) ETA: And, whether it’s a caucus or primary, what is the advantage over not having them?

Is it simply that a caucus is a small group of individuals (at a local level) who agree on a choice for candidate, with the plural ‘caucuses’ referring to a collection of such small groups? If so, does each caucus get one vote, or is the vote of a particular caucus weighted more or less depending on the number of individuals that comprise it? Or, is it entirely different with each individual in any caucus having one vote (which, I think, can’t be the case because that would just make it a primary).

As I typed the above, it became more and more obvious to me that I really don’t have a clue. So, I ask - can you set me straight, please.

(Anything you can add about why there even are things like caucuses and primaries would also be appreciated. What would a caucus/primary supporter say we missing out on in Canada by not having them?)

Don’t feel bad, as a generally non-ignorant American, I can’t say that I really understand it myself either and I doubt that many people outside of the states that have caucuses understand it either.

I am sure someone will be by soon to give a coherent explanation. I have tried to look it up as well and been left just as confused as before.

Caucusing is more like voting for voters.

There are several layers of caucus in Iowa. In the first one, which is today, the caucusers align themselves with a candidate and separate off into groups. Then, depending on how many people are aligned with each candidate, they elect representatives for another round of caucuses to be held later. I believe that there are three levels overall. It’s only the last one that actually assigns delegates to the candidates, but the first round does show which candidates are viable at the start of the game.

Caucuses take a bigger chunk of time, and include an opportunity for people to convince each other to support their candidate.

You seem to know as much as the average American Karl. Only Iowa uses this specific process, and the two parties have their own rules also. It doesn’t really matter, no one would care at all if the Iowa caucuses weren’t held before all the other primary events.

Google’s not cooperating, so I hope the OP doesn’t mind a slight diversion:

How long do caucuses typically take? I moved to a caucus state in 2007 after living in primary land, and I avoided it in 2008. Honestly I’m sure that there are advantages to caucuses but it’s such a turnoff. And IIRC both had them scheduled first thing in the morning then, thankfully both parties moved them later this year. I’m still not sure if I’ll vote but I’d have to change my party registration by some deadline anyway.

There are some differences between the parties: Democrats use superdelegates but Republicans have unpledged ones.

A primary is just like any other election. You walk into the polling place, mark your ballot, turn it in, and leave.
In the Iowa caucuses, you show up at a certain place. Representatives from each candidate make a speech, you then get into groups based on who your supporting. There is a minimum threshold and candidates who don’t make that threshold don’t get any support. At the end of the night each group with enough support has its members counted and these are just like regular votes except everyone knows who is voting for whom and they are all counted at once.

Very helpful, thanks.

Good, that I get.

When you say 'At the end of the night each group . . . has its members counted . . . ', I assume you’re referring to the group and its members at that specific location, right? Assuming that’s the case, then when and how are the results of all the groups at all the locations counted? I assume there’s another go round for that. Sounds like a helluva cumbersome system - there must be some offsetting advantages, no? After all, why go through all that mishigoss (hassle) if not?

Appreciate your help with this.

For the Iowa Democratic caucuses, each precinct has a fixed value, so it doesn’t matter how many people support a candidate overall. Each precinct elects the same number of delegates to the county convention whether 50 people or 500 people show up.

(The Iowa Republican caucus is much more like a primary. They just vote a secret paper ballot and leave, and the results are tabulated statewide.)

Ah, I see (I think). Reminds me of an electoral college process. Thank you.

As an aside, Exapno’s comment in this thread was quite reassuring!

As a Non US citizen looking in, it seems to me the “advantage” is that it excludes working poor who can’t get time off work to participate in the caucus.

Well, the caucuses are held in the evening, so no.

Iowa may be the only state that uses its particular process, but 13 states use the caucus process. (I just learned that tonight.)

And of course, no poor people have to work in the evening.

Well, the working poor are probably the ones most likely to be working in the evening. 7:00 PM isn’t exactly late night if you don’t work a 9:00-5:00 office job. (I don’t think the working poor have anything to do with it, though. It just spiraled out of control because the media made an arcane local party issue into THE first-in-the-nation presidential event. Now the state parties are stuck because they like going first but it wouldn’t be allowed if they held a primary.)

To the OP, having just moved to Nevada, a caucus state, from Maryland, a primary state, I’ll be participating in my first caucus in less than three weeks, so I’ll try to come back and give you first-person account of what it’s like.

I may feel differently later, but my first impression is resentment that it takes so much time on a Saturday afternoon. (My wife doesn’t like the fact that it’s Shabbat.) I’d much prefer to go into a voting booth and be done with it. Like you, I don’t understand the reason for caucusing. It does seem designed to make it harder for people to participate, and so is therefore inherently anti-democratic.

Anyone that works in retail or food service is likely to have a problem with that. And guess what people that work in retail and foods service are likely to have lower incomes than office workers with 9-5 jobs.

I participated in a caucus in Utah, many moons ago and got elected as a delegate to the state convention where my candidate got swamped.

Note that in both systems you are not actually voting for the candidate themself. With primaries, by voting for the candidate, you select delegates to the national convention.

With most caucuses you need to have a state convention in which the delegates from the local caucuses then select the delegates to the national convention.

Here in Minnesota, we have a similar caucus process.

For choosing Delegates to the next level (where they choose the candidates for various local offices), each Democratic caucus has a different number of delegates to choose. That number is linked to how many voters from that precinct voted Democratic in the last election. So strongly Democratic precincts will have proportionately more influence than weaker, Republican-leaning ones.

But for the presidential Candidate voting, it’s just 1 person, 1 vote – everybody who shows up gets to cast 1 vote. That’s why campaigns put a lot of effort into getting their supporters to show up and vote for their candidate.

Caucuses usually last about 2 or 2-1/2 hours. The whole second half is devoted to Resolutions on issues. Those can be anything from foreign policy like opposing war with Iraq to very local issues like supporting a new slide at the neighborhood park. (And it’s the very local ones that often get the most heated discussion!) There are some people who bring in lots of proposed Resolutions on all kinds of issues. And some people who have their own favorite issues. That can make a caucus longer, but most people will start to go home by 9:30-10pm. Often groups send out sample resolutions to their members, and ask them to bring those up at their precinct caucuses: Parent-Teacher Associations send in ones on education issues; etc.

Being a caucus state, we say that Caucus states choose candidates by meeting with your neighbors & talking issues; Primary states chose candidates based on which one can buy the best (or most) 30-second TV commercials.

The media likes Primaries, of course – they’re the ones selling all those commercials. And they get a much simpler, horse-race story to report – who won the most votes that day.

Yes, lots of people work evenings and yes, a lot of them are the working poor. However, your comment suggested the system was designed to disenfranchise them, which is a stretch. It also disenfranchises a number of police officers, nurses, ER doctors, night school teachers, fire fighters, skilled workers at factories, lawyers working late, etc.

I’d also hazzard a guess that when the caucus system was set up, the concept of extended business hours had not taken root, and so having it in the evening may have been an attempt to overcome the disenfranchisement you are concerned about.

Sorry to extend the hijack, but Coremelt I just read this in the NY Times about last night’s caucuses:

So, yeah.