What Is a Caucus? What Are They Used For?

(Last Updated On: February 6, 2020)

What Is a Caucus? What Are They Used For?

As we enter the election season, you’ve probably heard a lot of talk about states holding caucuses. But what is a caucus exactly, and what function do they serve?

Etymology of Caucus

The word “caucus” likely stems from American politics–that is to say it’s fairly new. Even the dictionary pins it as a term specifically geared towards US politics. One of the first appearances of the word caucus was in the diary of John Adams–dated around 1763 (yes, second president of the United States John Adams). It’s worth noting though that Adams spelled it “Caucas,” in reference to the “Caucas Clubb.”

Outside of that, there are a handful of proposed origins for the word–most of which generally conflict and run relatively undocumented. We do know it’s likely, however, that John Adams didn’t make up the word “caucas.” So we can rule that out.

Defining Caucuses

The plural of “caucus” is technically “caucuses.” But Latin says we’re allowed to use “cauci.” Which sounds way funnier, but we’ll have to use the technically correct “caucuses.”

Anyway, the word has a fairly broad definition. Generally speaking, a caucus is defined as a meeting of a specific political party and/or movement. Which is a pretty useless definition in a political context. You know, because it would mean you and your friends with similar political views would be caucusing all the time. 

Spread of the Caucus

While it’s agreed upon that the term “caucus” has American origins, it has since branched out. Now it’s observed in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, the UK (sort of), and Nepal. Which probably explains why the definition is so broad at face value. 

In Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, a caucus is normally more of a title than an activity. You don’t really “have a caucus.” Instead, the word is used to describe a group of Parliament members affiliated with a given party. Like instead of a “Labor Party,” you get a “Labor Caucus.” Canada has all of their members elect a caucus chair and stuff, since the umbrella covers all the political representatives as well.

So now we know what a group of politicians is called, we guess?

While the UK occasionally sees use of the word “caucus,” it’s not an official political term. They normally use the word “party” instead.

Caucuses in the US

Election Tools

In America, though, we hold caucuses instead of voting for the “Democratic Caucus” or “Republican Caucus.”

There aren’t any Constitutional provisions for the roles of parties in elections and whatnot–which is probably why primaries can have weird shenanigans (looking at you, Iowa). 

But alas, there are a handful of states that formally call their meetings caucuses. Among them are Iowa, Texas, Nevada, and Colorado. These are done to select the presidential nominee from each party. Most states, sans the ones we listed, do this with input from a presidential primary election

Primary elections and caucuses kind of feed into the same pool, by selecting a number of delegates to be sent to national conventions. What’s a national convention? Well each party has one, and they use it to select their presidential nominee. The delegates numbered during the primaries/caucuses are the ones who stick their heads out for prospective candidates.

If you think there’s a lot of abstraction going on that’s because America’s founders never really trusted its electorate. So it’s definitely working as intended. 

Further Reading: What Is the Electoral College?

In Congress

The caucus is used for a little more than just a handful of states voting, though. It’s also used in Congress. Though the terminology is sometimes a little inconsistent. 

Oh, also yes, a caucus is just people within the Senate or House of Representatives getting together to talk shop. 

But back to inconsistencies, the Republicans don’t tend to use the term “caucus” all the time. They sometimes use “coalition,” “conferences,” or “task forces,” among others. 

Sometimes caucuses aren’t by party, and may be within subgroups or factions within a party. Sometimes they can cross party lines. So you could see how this might get quite passive aggressive. 

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.