A caucus is an informal meeting of local party members to discuss candidates and choose delegates to their party’s convention.
It can also refer to informal groups of Members of the House of Representatives or the Senate used to discuss common issues of concern and conduct policy planning for its members.
There are also regional, ideological, and ethnic-based caucuses in Congress.
And, in a broader, more global context, the caucus model is also employed in other democratic systems, albeit sometimes under different names.
Origin of “Caucus”
The term has a long history, dating back to the early days of American politics, and it has evolved to encapsulate a range of activities within both electoral politics and legislative processes.
It comes from the Algonquian language and means “to meet together.”
As William Harris wrote:
The term Caucus is first attested in the diary of John Adams in 1763 as a meeting of a small group interested in political matters, but William Gordon’s History of the Independence of the United States of America, 1788 speaks of the establishment of caucus political clubs as going back fifty years earlier than his time of writing in 1774, so a first-occurrence date for the caucus can be estimated in retrospect as early as 1724.
In the context of electoral politics, most notably the U.S. presidential primaries, a caucus is a form of participatory decision-making where registered voters assemble at a designated location to discuss and ultimately vote for their preferred candidate.
Unlike primary elections, where voting is done by secret ballot, caucuses are often public and can involve debate, persuasion, and sometimes multiple rounds of voting.
States like Iowa have become famous for their early caucuses, which act as bellwethers for the rest of the primary season.
The caucus system in this sense has been both lauded for its grassroots democratic nature and criticized for its complexity and potential to exclude those who cannot commit the time to attend.
Within legislative bodies such as the U.S. Congress, a caucus is a group of lawmakers united by common political goals, demographic characteristics, or specific policy interests.
These caucuses, like the Congressional Black Caucus or the Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives, act as intra-party organizations that work to advance specific legislative agendas.
They often wield considerable power, especially if their size is large enough to sway the passage of legislation or the election of party leadership.
Use of “Caucus” in a sentence
- The Iowa Caucus traditionally serves as the first significant electoral event in the U.S. presidential primary season, offering candidates a critical early test of their campaign’s viability and setting the tone for subsequent contests.
- Within the halls of Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Freedom Caucus represent ideological and demographic coalitions, wielding collective influence to shape legislative agendas and party strategies.
- The term “caucus” can also refer to closed-door meetings of party members in a legislative body, where candid discussions and strategic planning occur away from the public eye, often leading to key decisions on leadership positions or legislative priorities.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.