What’s a Caucus?

Earlier this month GOP demigod George W. Bush, campaigning in Iowa, promised to win the August 14 “straw poll.” What is a straw poll, and how does it differ from a caucus or a primary?

A straw poll is the warm-up to a caucus or primary. A non-binding tally held the year before primary season, it’s used to raise money for the state party and gauge a candidate’s viability. Straw polls are not regulated by the national parties, and the most prominent are the early ones, such as the Iowa GOP poll. To vote in that poll, all you need is proof of Iowa residency, $25, and a ride to the Hilton in Des Moines. About 12,000 people usually attend, and the results are immediately released to the media.

A caucus system is a type of primary that’s limited to party members who attend one of thousands of small meetings throughout the state. (About 120,000 people will vote in the Iowa GOP caucuses next February.) Attendees elect a county delegate, who in turn casts a vote for another delegate at a higher level, and so on up the party’s chain of command, until delegates to the national convention are chosen. In states that hold caucuses, this is the only way to vote for presidential delegates. Although each county delegate is supposedly committed to a given candidate, the national delegates sometimes support a different candidate than the winner of the initial vote. But since only a dozen or so small states even use caucuses, there are too few of these delegates at the national convention to ultimately make a difference. It is the media and fund-raising splash following the initial, local vote that counts.

Former Oregon Senator Bob Packwood called straw polls and caucuses “psychoprimaries.” Psychoprimaries were created by state political parties partly to defend against the encroachment of mandatory presidential primaries, which redistributed political power from party bosses to the rank and file. Following the 1968 election, Democratic activists–who were angry at the exclusionary, machine-controlled nature of the Chicago convention–helped pass state laws requiring presidential candidates to enter the primaries (the GOP was effectively pulled along). Between the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections the number of national convention delegates determined by primaries skyrocketed from one third to more than two thirds.

Some states resisted. Party leaders in Iowa, who had used informal caucuses to help determine national convention delegates since the 19th century, reworked the caucus system as a sort of anti-primary, a way to limit any would-be primary election to those dedicated enough to attend a caucus meeting.

In 1976 the Iowa GOP added its straw poll as a fundraising and publicity tool. Because it requires an entrance fee, is held in only one location, and demands an all-day commitment, a straw poll typically attracts only party diehards–say, the Buchanan county chairman and his friends and family. So it tends to favor ideological candidates more than do the caucuses, which are free and held all over the state. The 1984 Wisconsin Democratic straw poll was won by a nuclear-freeze candidate, Alan Cranston, who beat Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. In 1987 Pat Robertson won the Iowa straw poll but placed a distant second in the caucuses. In 1995 Phil Gramm tied Bob Dole in the Iowa straw poll, then placed fifth in the caucuses. This year pundits give social conservative Gary Bauer, an otherwise marginal candidate, a fighting chance in the Iowa straw poll.

Explainer thanks Professor Dennis Goldford of Drake University, Ann Dougherty of the Iowa Republican Party, Stephanie Mangino of the Republican National Committee, and Donny Claxton of National Research Strategies.