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By Jon Schlotterback

The months-long process for nominating each political party’s presidential candidate begins in two unlikely states: Iowa and New Hampshire.[1]  The first nomination contest in the country, Iowa, by state law, holds its caucus at least eight days prior to any other state contest.[2]  The next state to hold its nomination contest, and first to hold a primary, is New Hampshire.[3]  While only a few states still hold caucuses, the differences between caucuses and primaries are substantial and have caused many commentators to re-consider whether caucuses should be an option for selecting presidential nominees.  Furthermore, after the failure at the 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucus, many more have called for Iowa to lose its coveted spot as first in line.[4] 

Caucuses are currently held by only four states and three territories as their popularity has significantly declined over time.[5]  There are many differences between primaries and caucuses.  First, caucuses are funded and administered by each party rather than the state government.[6]  The process, therefore, is different for Democratic and Republican caucuses.[7] 

In a Democratic Party caucus, voters enter into a large public forum, typically a union hall, church, or school gymnasium, and split off into different groups based on their preferred candidate.[8]  The numbers of each group are tallied and any group with less than 15% support out of the total number of voters present causes the candidate to be considered “non-viable.”[9]  Every voter supporting a “non-viable” candidate must then choose to abstain or join another group.[10]  In the meanwhile, candidate representatives and voters attempt to convince others to split off and join their candidate.[11]  After the voters have been re-shuffled into new groups, the caucus administrators count the number of voters from each group to determine the number of votes for each candidate.[12] 

A Republican Party caucus is rather simple by comparison.  While voters must still attend in person, each voter listens to the speeches made by each candidate’s supporters and then is able to vote for their preferred candidate by secret ballot.[13] 

Another difference between Democratic and Republican caucuses, therefore, is the availability of a secret vote for Republican caucus-goers.[14]  By showing their support through their physical presence in a group, Democratic caucus-goers must publicly display their voting preferences, a source of controversy for many.[15] 

Common critiques of caucuses are the significant time investment, the disadvantage to voters unable to be physically present, the lack of a secret ballot, and low voter turnout.  The first issue, especially in Democratic caucuses, is the time investment required by voters.[16]  As caucuses can take upwards of several hours to complete, voters who are care-givers or shift workers may not have the required flexibility to attend and participate in the nomination process.[17]   Second, caucuses have long required voters to be physically present to cast their votes.[18]  Although the Republican and Democratic parties have attempted to make some allowances, the physical presence requirement of caucuses prevents some voters from participating.[19]  For deployed military personnel, the disabled, or those without transportation to voting centers, the physical presence requirement is a major obstacle to participation.[20]  Additionally, a problem for Democratic caucuses is the lack of a secret ballot.[21]  Finally, caucuses have a low turnout ratio.[22]  The time commitment and effort, even for those with the resources to attend, convinces many voters to stay home.[23] 

Supporters of caucuses, however, argue that the ability for voters to speak to each other and attempt to convince others to join their candidate is the best example of free democracy.[24]  Describing the Iowa caucuses, President Obama said “[i]t felt to me like the best example of what democracy should be.”[25]  Furthermore, supporters argue the traditions of the caucus should not be quickly overturned as political parties have made strides towards absentee voting.[26]

Primary nomination contests, on the other hand, have the support of a majority of the country.[27]  Funded by state and local governments, primaries are similar to the general election in November.[28]  While primaries can have slight variances, generally voters can arrive, vote on a secret ballot for their preferred candidate, and leave having fulfilled their right to vote.[29]  Primaries, therefore, require smaller time commitments, increase voter turnout, and include even absentee voters.[30] 

The modern nomination process began after the Democratic Convention in 1968.[31]  Violence broke out in Chicago after Hubert Humphrey was nominated as the Democratic Party candidate for president.[32]  The displeasure with the nomination of Mr. Humphrey stemmed from the fact that he had not even entered into any nomination contests and his selection was due to the choice of party elites.[33]  After Mr. Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon, the Democratic Party created the McGovern-Fraser Commission to increase transparency in the nomination process and ensure party members had a chance to weigh in on the candidate.[34] 

During the next presidential nomination process, a lack of hotel rooms in Des Moines, Iowa in 1972 necessitated the party to move the state’s caucus to the first in the calendar year.[35]  A concerted effort by the state created a sense of urgency for both candidates and the media to win Iowa to gain momentum in the nomination process.[36]  The Iowa caucus victory of Jimmy Carter, leading to an eventual presidential election victory, solidified the state’s place as the first nomination contest in the country, a place that has remained to this day.[37] 

As the first nomination contest in the country, Iowa holds special prominence for presidential hopefuls.  After the catastrophe that was the Iowa Democratic Caucus in 2020, many have renewed calls for Iowa to relinquish its place in the nomination calendar.[38]  Commentators have argued that Iowa and the next state in the nomination process, New Hampshire, wield disproportionate power over the rest of the country.[39]  Additionally, neither state is racially representative of the country with higher percentages of their populations identifying as Caucasian.[40]  Furthermore, both states have higher rural populations than the rest of the country.[41]  Finally, commentators argue that Iowa and New Hampshire should not be able to maintain their monopoly over the nomination calendar every single election cycle.[42]

Supporters, however, argue that Iowa has major benefits for the nomination process.  The small, rural population requires candidates to engage in person-to-person relationships with voters.[43]  This permits lesser-known candidates with less funding to effectively campaign and have the ability to gather national momentum and reputation by winning the state,[44] a benefit that would be eliminated by a national primary.[45]  Additionally, Iowa voters have experience with vetting candidates and help to narrow down the voting pool by eliminating candidates who will not be able to win over the electorate in November.[46]  Finally, Iowa does not decide the presidential nominees on its own.  Iowa has a small number of delegates available for each party’s candidates and the subsequent months give other states an opportunity to out-vote the Iowa selection process.[47]

Iowa and New Hampshire, as the first two states in the nomination process for presidential candidates, help to inspire both candidates and voters for the upcoming general election.  Their placement as the first nomination contests in the country provides each state with disproportionate exposure in each candidate’s presidential campaign.  Each state, however, also provides often unexplored benefits to the rest of the country. 

[1] Erin Blakemore, Here’s the Difference Between a Caucus and a Primary Election, Nat’l Geographic (Jan. 31, 2020),

[2] Iowa Code § 43.4 (2020).

[3] Blakemore, supra note 1.

[4] See, e.g., William H. Frey, Just How Demographically Skewed are the Early Democratic Primary States?, Brookings (Jan. 31, 2020),; Jordan Weismann, Here Are Just a Few Ways We Could Replace the Iowa Caucuses, SLATE (Feb. 4, 2020), (“The one silver lining of Monday night’s disaster at the Iowa caucuses is that it just might . . . spell the end of the Iowa caucuses.”).

[5] Michelle Mark & Joe Perticone, States Choose Presidential Nominees in 2 Very Different Ways.  Here Are the Major Differences Between Primaries and Caucuses, Business Insider (Feb. 4, 2020), (noting that, in 2016, Iowa, Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming, and (only Republican) Kentucky are the only states with caucuses).

[6] See Blakemore, supra note 1.

[7] Des Moines Register Staff, How Do the Iowa Caucuses Work and How They Are Different From a Primary, USA Today (Jan. 31, 2020),

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Sam Sanders, Why Does Iowa Vote First, Anyway?, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Jan. 29, 2016),

[15] See, e.g., id.

[16] See Chad Flanders, What Do We Want In a Presidential Primary?  An Election Law Perspective, 44 U. Mich. J.L. Reform 901, 916 (2011).

[17] Id.

[18] Sanders, supra note 14.

[19] Flanders, supra note 16.

[20] Id.

[21] Sean J. Wright, Time to End Presidential Caucuses, 85 Fordham L. Rev. 1127, 1133 (2016).

[22] Id. at 1134.

[23] Id. at 1133–34.

[24] See Blakemore, supra note 1 (“Unlike the days of closed-door meetings led by party bosses, modern caucuses bring ordinary citizens together to select their preferred candidates.”).

[25] Jonathan Stahl, Why Iowa and New Hampshire Go First, Nat’l Constitution Ctr. (Jan. 29, 2016),

[26] Andrew Prokop, Why Do the Iowa Caucuses Matter?  Because Everyone Thinks They Do, Vox (Feb. 1, 2016),

[27] Blakemore, supra note 1 (finding 81% of Americans believed primaries were preferable over caucuses).

[28] Id.

[29] Mark & Perticone, supra note 5.

[30] Wright, supra note 21, at 1134.

[31] Id. at 1129.

[32] Id.

[33] Blakemore, supra note 1.

[34] Mark & Perticone, supra note 5.

[35] Stahl, supra note 25.

[36] Prokop, supra note 26 (quoting Tom Whitney, former Iowa Democratic chair, “[W]e organized a very, very significant kind of effort to convince first the candidates that they ought to be in Iowa because the national press was going to be here, and then to convince the national press that they should be in Iowa because the candidates were going to be here”).

[37] Id.

[38] Weismann, supra note 4.

[39] Frey, supra note 4.

[40] Id. (finding Iowa and New Hampshire to represent 85.3% and 90.0% Caucasian population, respectively).

[41] Id.

[42] See Weismann, supra note 4.

[43] Flanders, supra note 16, at 908.

[44] Id.

[45] Id. at 937 (“[A] national primary may not be a very competitive race, if a well-funded and well-known candidate is able to take an early lead and sprint ahead of the field.  He or she will be able to sew up the nomination rather quickly – indeed, after the national primary is held, the race will be over.”).

[46] Sanders, supra note 14.

[47] Id.