Caucusing made easy: A guide

Liz Riggs

Some are calling it the closest thing we have to a national primary. Others have nicknamed it “Super Duper Tuesday.” With precinct caucuses just a day away, the Daily talked with several local experts about what students can expect Feb. 5 when 24 states, including Minnesota, host caucuses or primaries.

What is a caucus?

find your caucus

The Minnesota Secretary of State’s Web site features a nonpartisan precinct caucus finder. Visit The Minnesota Secretary of State Web site

A caucus is an opportunity to see how politics work at a grassroots level, University political science professor Steven Rosenstone said. “These are occasions where you go and you talk about policy and you talk about the candidates and you choose individuals who will represent your caucus at the next level in the nominating process – not just for president but also, in this year, for senator, as well,” he said. Minnesota is one of roughly a dozen states that holds caucuses, Rosenstone said.

What happens at a caucus?

Registration for DFL precinct caucuses begins at 6:30 p.m., with the actual caucus beginning at 7 p.m., said Donna Cassutt, associate chairwoman of the Minnesota DFL. “And we’re recommending that folks get there a little early because we’re expecting pretty substantial turnout,” she said. Minnesota GOP spokesman Mark Drake said GOP caucuses convene at 7 p.m., as there won’t be an early registration period.

“Signing-in” entails affirming you live in the precinct you’re caucusing in – for students, that can be verified with your campus address, that you are eligible to vote Nov. 4 and that you support the principles of whatever party you’re caucusing with. After registering, caucus-goers receive presidential preference ballots, secret written ballots for marking their choice for president.

Presidential preference ballots can only be cast until 8 p.m., though caucuses can go on for longer. “Some folks are just interested in the presidential (preference ballots) and may just show up and turn out for that specifically and then leave, which is perfectly fine,” Cassutt said. Those who choose to stay can help elect delegates to go onto the next level of convention. For DFLers in the metro area that means senate district conventions, for GOP members, they’re basic political organizing conventions.

Party unit officers, precinct chairmen and associate chairmen, will be selected that night and resolutions submitted and voted on. In this way, participants can also help to shape the party platform.

According to the DFL Web site, “the presidential preference ballot is binding – which means that it determines the allocation of delegates for each candidate at the (Democratic National Convention).”

Drake said unlike the DFL’s presidential preference ballot, the GOP’s “is nonbinding, meaning our delegates are allotted later on down the road.”

Who can attend a caucus?

Caucuses are free events open to the public. Those who will be at least 18 on general Election Day, Nov. 4, can actively participate in a caucus. According to Minnesota Secretary of State’s office literature, to participate in a caucus you must “support or be likely to support the candidates of the political party whose caucus you attend.”

How does a caucus differ from a primary?

Drake said a caucus involves a group of people discussing politics. “Typically a primary would be people voting in a voting booth and then leaving. People are certainly allowed to sign in and vote and then leave during a caucus, but a lot of people will choose to stick around because they do enjoy talking about issues and talking about politics with their friends and neighbors,” he said.

Rosenstone said, “Caucuses have a tendency to involve more of the party leaders in making the decisions and it’s more of a deliberative process where we all have to come together at the same time Ö as opposed to a primary where you can stop in at 7:15 on your way to work in the privacy of the booth, close the curtain and cast your ballot.”

Why did the Minnesota DFL and GOP move up the date of their caucuses? Will we essentially know who the nominees are Tuesday night?

Rosenstone said there’s only one reason the DFL and GOP would move their caucus dates to Super Tuesday and that’s to make Minnesota “more relevant” in selecting parties’ nominees. Shifting the caucuses up about a month is an attempt to get more attention for Minnesota and to “give the Minnesota electorate a little more punch in deciding who the nominee is,” Rosenstone said.

Drake also cited relevancy as an issue. “In the past we’ve gone so late that I think both parties had presumptive nominees by the time we got around to voting,” he said. “We feel like it was a good decision and obviously feel like all the excitement validates that.”

Come Tuesday night, Rosenstone said, “we may well know who our nominee is. There may be so many states that are decided by large enough margins that we may not have reached the magic number, but mathematically we may see the writing on the wall.”

“Magic number” is a reference to the number of national delegates needed for a candidate to secure his or her party’s nomination, all of which are not attainable on Super Tuesday alone.

However, he cautioned against relying too heavily on the Super Tuesday results to forecast the nominees. “It’s entirely possible, given how close these races have been, that we will not know on Wednesday morning who the nominee is, and there’ll still be some events after Super Tuesday that will help decide that.”

What if I have class Tuesday night?

The University is not cancelling classes, but instructors whose students attend caucuses are expected to “make reasonable accommodations” for them, University Provost Tom Sullivan said in an e-mail.

University spokesman Dan Wolter said, “the policy is very clear that students can attend their caucuses, even if they have a class scheduled that night.”

While there’s no specific definition of “reasonable accommodations,” Wolter said it suggests faculty should keep students informed about what they’re missing, including making notes or other handouts available. “We hope faculty will use their best judgment in that regard, which I think they have very much done in the past.”