What are primary elections and caucuses?

An explainer on how primary elections and caucuses function and a look at how Virginia voted on Super Tuesday.

Erin McCormick and Sonia Samantaroy

*This article was intended for publication in our March print issue, which will no longer be distributed due to Covid-19 school closures. 

Erin McCormick

Presidential primary elections and caucuses are part of the process for nominating candidates for United States presidential elections. In primary elections, voters cast their votes in private. A caucus, according to USA Today’s definition, is “a gathering of party members to discuss presidential preferences, elect local party leaders and talk about policy positions that make up a party’s platform.” Caucuses are open and public, while primaries can be either open or closedIn an open primary, voters from both parties can weigh in on Republican and Democratic primaries. If the primary is closed, a voter must be registered in order to vote in the primary. For example, in a closed primary, if you are a Republican, you must be registered as a Republican voter in order to vote in the Republican primary and vice versa. 

The voting for caucuses is conducted by voters through either raising their hands or breaking off into groups based on which candidates they support. In most precincts, in order for a candidate to move on to the “final round,” a candidate must have at least 15% of the votes. After that, voters whose nominees were not eligible can vote for an eligible candidate or choose not to vote. Throughout the process, voters can talk to other voters and influence their decision.

Super Tuesday, which fell on March 3 this year, is when 14 states hold their primaries or caucuses, including Virginia. The American Samoa and Democrats living abroad also voted on Super Tuesday. In the Virginia Democratic primary, former Vice President Joe Biden won overwhelmingly compared to the other candidates with around 53% of the votes and 66 pledged delegates. In 2008, Barack Obama was the first Democratic candidate to win Virginia in a presidential race since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Since his victory in 2008, Virginia has remained blue due to the influential suburbs of Washington, D.C. and the sizable African American population in Richmond. 

On Super Tuesday, Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders were the front runners with Biden winning 10 states and Bernie winning California; the largest prize. However, Biden won the night in terms of delegates. After a disappointing night for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Elizebeth Warren, both candidates dropped out of the race in the following days.

The Republican primary was cancelled and President Donald Trump will likely be officially nominated as the state party’s nominee at the August Republican National Convention.