Learning Resources

Primaries v. Caucuses

A collaboration with Made by History

Read for Understanding:

When a presidential election year rolls around we hear a lot of terms on the news and in discussions, including “primary” and “caucus”. This lesson looks at what these two terms mean and why that is important.

Key Vocabulary

Caucus - party members select the best candidate through a series of discussions and votes

Delegate - votes in a primary election, typically votes how the people vote, then takes these votes to the party’s national convention

Electoral College - representatives of each state who cast the final ballots that actually elect a president

Electorate - citizens who are eligible to vote.

General Election - Election in which voters decide which candidates will actually fill elective public offices. 

Incumbent - An elected official who is currently serving in office.

Primary - Election in which voters decide which of the candidates within a party will represent the party in the general election.


What is the difference between a primary and a caucus, and why should we care?

Every four years Americans engage in the democratic process of electing the highest office in the United States, the President. You have been studying the branches of government, political parties and the requirements for running for the office of President. In most election years, if the incumbent (current President) has only served one four-year term, they are eligible to run for re-election. The party not currently holding office will engage in a series of political activities known as primaries or caucuses. It varies from state to state, so you will need to examine which procedure your state follows.  

Take a few minutes to view this video from USA Today about the election process.

Primary Process:  

Your teacher will distribute paper or digital ballots to each student.  You will vote, without discussing your views, on the candidates presented. 

Your teacher will randomly select 3 students to collect and tally the votes. All other voters should remain seated and quiet during this time. If necessary, a tie-breaker may be held if 2 choices receive the same number of votes.  Once a clear winner is determined, the teacher will announce the winner.

Can we Caucus?

Take a look at this animation from Politico to learn about America’s original method of choosing a presidential candidate, the caucus.

Next, you will participate in an activity called Vote with Your Feet. Your teacher will pose the same list of candidates as you voted on with the primary election. This time, your previous choices will be posted on signs in 4-5 distinct locations around the classroom. When your teacher gives you permission, you will immediately go stand under the sign which most closely aligns with your point of view. There should be no discussion, just movement during this time. One everyone is relocated and makes their position known, each group will have one minute to discuss, and 30 seconds to have a spokesperson for the group give an “elevator speech” trying to convince members of the other 2 groups to join their “caucus.” After all 3 groups have pitched their ideas, voters will have 15 seconds to move to another group. If neither group has a 50 majority, a second round of “elevator speeches” may be used to further persuade voters to change their minds. After a 2nd vote, (again, 15 seconds to move—if you so choose) the teacher will determine if another round is needed. 

Once your class has finished, you will do a Quick Write and reflect on the 2 activities you just participated in with your classmates. 

  • Which activity seemed most equitable? 
  • Did you prefer the paper ballot or the Vote with Your Feet activity more?  

Your teacher may ask you to record your answers on an exit ticket. 


Is the current system of primaries and caucuses still the best option for electing the president?

Examine this infographic (poster) from USA.gov—look very carefully. Think about the previous video you viewed and the voting activities you participated in earlier. The infographic reviews basic vocabulary and qualifications for the presidential candidates. It also shares information about next steps after the primaries and caucuses, including the official nominations of candidates at the parties’ national conventions, general election and the electoral college.

Turn and talk to a partner, discussing your thoughts on the infographic.

  • What is the focus of the infographic?
  • What is the author’s purpose?
  • How does the author demonstrate authority or knowledge of the subject?
  • How do the visual elements support understanding or analysis?
  • If you could improve this infographic, what might you illustrate differently?

Here is a short video from USA.gov which gives more information about the infographic. 

Watch the video first, then discuss these final questions with your partner.

  • Now that you know more about the overall process, what is your opinion on the primaries and/or caucuses?  
  • Should all 50 states and US territories pick one or the other?  
  • Explain your answer using examples from the video, class activities and/or the infographic. 

Your teacher may ask you to record your answers on an exit ticket. 


What can we learn from historic election patterns? 

During the early years of the Republic, caucuses were the preferred way for leaders of the new nation to nominate candidates for elections. Political parties informally began the caucus tradition following George Washington’s second term as the first president. Over time, the caucuses became more complicated and less popular, as the primary process emerged and eventually replaced them in most states. In modern elections, some political analysts and news media have used the earlier primaries and caucuses almost like a weather forecast to try and predict the possible outcomes of these political races. 

In 2020, the Washington Post’s Made by History team decided to enlist the help of historians to develop “The Historians’ Guide to 2020,” an ongoing series of history-based articles aimed at exploring the ins, outs and implications of the 2020 election. The first article takes a look at the history of the Iowa caucuses.  

Read this excerpt from historian Amber Roessner, Why the Iowa Caucuses May Elevate An Underdog, on Bunk.

Notice the related content to the right of the excerpt. The stack of cards contains other articles, maps or content somehow connected to the original article on the left of the screen. As new content is added to Bunk, the related content and number of cards/connections (indicated by a gray number) will vary.

The connection icons located to the left of the cards here represent Idea, Person, Place and Time, which refers to a connected article from a different time period. These icons and the connected articles you see on the screen may change over time as new content is added to Bunk.  

Select the “View Connections” button.

Notice how the screen changes.

Select the “How Connections Work” icon and “Learn More” to read about how Bunk makes connections to its content. Return back to the elections excerpt by using your browser’s back arrow.

Take some time to explore this and other connections to the original excerpt from Historian Amber Roessner. Notice how each of the connections icons (Idea, Place, Person, Time) leads you to a new stack of cards with different articles and topics. Each of these topics in turn has a list of “tags” below the icon to help guide you towards new and different content. Select at least one other icon and/or tag related to elections, primaries or caucuses to explore. Read one or more excerpts of related content you find. If time permits, you may select the “View on...” button to read the full articles on their original sources.

Use the Think, Pair, Share strategy to reflect on what you read; first on your own, then with a partner, then with another set of partners in a small group.

  • What new ideas or insights did the excerpts or articles give you about primaries and caucuses?
  • Thinking back to the previous primary/caucus activities you did with your class, and the videos/infographic you studied, has your opinion about either of these partisan election processes changed? 

Your teacher may ask you to record your answers on an exit ticket. 


Is the current system of primaries and caucuses still working for American voters? 

The primary and caucus system has been a part of U.S. politics since almost the beginning of the nation. Some voters question if the system is broken. Does the election process, including the primaries and caucuses, and nominating conventions really help American citizens select from among the best-qualified candidates, or is the system broken? This second piece from the #HistoriansGuideto2020 delves into these questions. Historian Bruce J. Shulman explores the way these processes have evolved over the years. 

View this excerpt on Bunk.

Take some time to explore the connections now that you know how Bunk works! You will be building a collection* of articles to help you answer the question, Is the current system of primaries and caucuses still working for American voters? 

To build a collection, you will need to scroll down to the bottom of the excerpt from Historian Bruce J. Schulman and locate the Add to Collection button. 

You will see a box labeled “Add a note.” This is where you will annotate, or write a brief description of how this excerpt helps you answer the question. Be sure to save your note using the green Save Note button. If you decide you want to remove an excerpt from your collection, you can return to the excerpt and select the red “Remove from Collection button.

Continue adding 3-5 excerpts to your collection, exploring the connections on Bunk and annotating each one. Be sure you are saving as you go along. Once you are finished, you may locate the blue bar at the bottom of your screen and select finalize. You MUST save and finish this during one class period. 

You will need to give your collection a title, and add your name and teacher’s name/class period. You may reorder the excerpts, and edit or delete a note or excerpt until you are satisfied with your work. Be sure you SAVE CHANGES before you select the green Complete Collection button. 

You will need to use an email address to share or retrieve your collection. For safety reasons, your teacher may choose to have you use their school email address, or they may use the Assignment feature instead of Collections on Bunk. 

Keep checking back on Bunk for new content being added to follow the 2024 elections.  You can search for related tags such as “elections,” “candidates,” “primaries,  or others you are interested in following. New content is added to Bunk every day!

This map from 270 to Win may be a useful guide as you continue to follow the election process.

Your teacher may ask you to record your answers on an exit ticket. 

*(Note: Your teacher may prefer you to complete an assignment they created in Bunk if your school does not allow students to access email. This is similar to the Collections feature in Bunk).. 


Where might we find more information specific to the next presidential election?

The following list of curated resources may be used to track primary and caucus results and compare and contrast party platforms and candidates' positions on a variety of campaign issues.

For K-8 students:

Ben’s Guide Election of the President & Vice President: Primary Election

Kids.gov  Becoming President: Primaries and Caucuses

For High School, Advanced Placement, Dual Enrollment, or Honors courses:

BackStory:  History of Political Parties Splintered Parties

CNN Election 2024 Map 

Washington Post Elections: video on Primaries Why do we do it this way? Explaining America’s presidential primary system?


Amber Roessner. “A Century of Reforms Made Iowa and New Hampshire Presidential Kingmakers.” Bunk History. Washington Post, February 3, 2020.

“Road to 270.” CNN Politics. Cable News Network, February 2024. https://www.cnn.com/election/2024/electoral-college-map?game-id=2024-PG-CNN-ratings&game-view=map.

"An Illustrated Guide To The Iowa Caucuses". 2020. Politico.Com. https://www.politico.com/interactives/2020/iowa-caucus-how-they-work/.

"Becoming President: Primaries And Caucuses". 2020. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ll1QFMWj8VE.

"Caucus V. Primary: What's The Difference?". 2020. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_gA766lT3c.

Davis, Katy. “Election of the President and Vice President: Primary Election.” Ben's Guide. Government Publishing Office, n.d. https://bensguide.gpo.gov/election-of-the-president-vice-president-primary-election.

"Presidential Election Process | USA.gov". 2020. USA.Gov. https://www.usa.gov/election#item-212481.

“Quick Write/Quick Draw - Readwritethink.” Read Write Think, 2007. https://www.readwritethink.org/sites/default/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson1053/quick_write_draw.pdf.

Shulman, Bruce J. “The Police Know Guerrilla Warfare.” Bunk History. Washington Post, February 3, 2020.

“Splintered Parties.” BackStory. Virginia Humanities, June 13, 2014. https://backstory.newamericanhistory.org/search?query=splintered.

"Vote With Your Feet". 2020. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQzlL7KkVcI.

"Why Do We Do It This Way? Explaining America’s Presidential Primary System". 2020. Washington Post Election 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/why-do-we-do-it-this-way-explaining-americas-presidential-primary-system/2020/02/02/accdaa12-1b04-4ee6-b566-36bbdb719906_video.html.

This work by New American History is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at newamericanhistory.org.

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