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The Iowa Caucus and Beyond

What’s a Caucus and How Does it Work?

The presidential primary season is upon us again, and Americans are re-familiarizing themselves with the candidate selection process. Beginning in the winter of the election year, each state partners with the major political parties to hold a caucus or primary election to determine who will win each party’s nomination. Though the primary process is complex and hinges upon many obscure rules created by the parties, each voter will have a chance to cast his or her ballot for the potential nominee of their choice.

Traditionally, the Iowa Caucus is the first electoral event, and this year it will take place on February 1. This is followed quickly by the New Hampshire Primary (February 9) and caucuses and primaries in South Carolina and Nevada in the same month.

In this eLesson, students will identify the difference between a caucus and primary, discover when their state’s nomination contest will take place, and analyze how the power of political parties has changed over time. They will also participate in a mock caucus within their own classroom.


Teachers should create a free account or login to their account at to access these Documents of Freedom resources, and then follow the links below.


  1. Using your classroom’s computer resources, have students explore the Bill of Rights Institute’s Think the Vote website. They should utilize the interactive map to see when caucuses and primaries will take place around the country. Have them read the article “Primaries and Caucuses.”
    1. Ask your students when their state’s primary or caucus will be held. Ask the following questions.
      1. Will the caucus or primary happen early or later in the process?
      2. What is the difference between a caucus and a primary?
      3. Where are the first, second, and third caucuses or primaries held? Why are these states traditionally the first to hold their nomination events?
  2. Have your students read “Why is Super Tuesday so Super?” Ask them what is “Super Tuesday” and why has it been considered an important part of the nomination process.
  3. In class or as a homework assignment the night before, have students read the essay “Political Parties” in Documents of Freedom. In writing or in small groups, have students respond to and consider the following questions.
    1. Why did the Framers fear the rise of political parties?
    2. What were the two main parties in the early years of the American republic?
    3. What were Martin Van Buren’s arguments in favor of a two-party system?
    4. Since the 1850s, what two parties have been dominant?
    5. In terms of power-sharing among parties, how are parliamentary and two-party government systems markedly different?
    6. Why have political parties seen their power decline? How has the modern primary system contributed to this decline?
  4. Organize a mock caucus within your classroom. Begin by having students read “How Do the Iowa Caucuses Work?”
    1. Select three students (or ask for volunteers) to stand as “presidential candidates.” They can act as candidates for president of the United States, or for president of their classroom or school. They must craft a three-issue platform distinct from one another.
    2. Have the three candidates make a short presentation to the class outlining their platforms and promises. You may also choose to build in time for the candidates to “campaign” around the classroom and meet with voters one-on-one.
    3. Have the class watch the short video “Inside a Caucus: Iowa 2008” so that they can see how a caucus works in real-time.
    4. Begin the caucus voting process by instructing students to form their own groups based upon which candidate they support. One supporter from each group should give a one-minute speech to the class in favor of his or her candidate. After the speeches have concluded, have students vote for each candidate.
    5. After voting is complete, eliminate the candidate and candidate’s group with the least number of supporters. The two largest groups of supporters now have ten minutes to try and convince the losing candidate’s supporters to join their voting bloc. This can be done through persuasion or promises of rewards. Some supporters of the losing candidate may choose not to support a new candidate; if this happens, they are no longer voting in the caucus.
    6. Begin the voting process again by having one supporter for each faction make a one-minute speech. This is their last pitch for their candidate. After both speeches have been made, vote again to determine the winner of the caucus. The candidate with the most supporters has won the caucus. Explain that in an actual caucus, the amount of delegates awarded at the county or state convention may be proportional to the share of the vote each candidate received.