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A caucus is a general meeting of a political party or group. Within political science, the term has two distinct meanings. First, a caucus may refer to a party convention to select candidates or establish consensus on issues. Second, a caucus can be a policy or issue-specific parliamentary grouping that exists either within a broader party or that often crosses party lines based on issue positions.
The term was first used in the United States to apply to the regular meetings of political parties at the local and state levels. At these sessions, party members would choose candidates and adopt common stances on policy matters. Caucuses provided a means for the party hierarchy to control candidate selection since political bosses typically handpicked the delegates. The use of primary elections to choose candidates was a progressive reform designed to open the system to greater public participation, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many states replaced caucuses with primaries. In the United States, fourteen states still use some form of the caucus system to choose candidates. Caucuses have become more open and are held at the ward or district level. In addition, they are typically open to all registered members of a party. Attendees divide themselves according to their candidate preference and then engage in alternating periods of debate and voting until a winner emerges. The Iowa caucuses traditionally launch the U.S. presidential nomination process. Delegates are elected from all 1,784 precincts. Those delegates then meet at ninety-nine different county conventions (one for each county in the state) to choose the party’s candidates for the presidency and Congress.
Within legislative bodies, caucuses are collective groups of individual representatives or political parties that organize themselves to advance specific interests and expand their influence. Sometimes known alternately as conferences, these groupings allow party members to organize around specific interests. Among countries that utilize the Westminster system, caucuses can be the collective membership of a party. These groupings are responsible for electing leaders, establishing rules, developing party positions on issues, and group discipline, especially on voting matters. For instance, in Canada the party caucus has the authority to elect the party leader, while in New Zealand the caucus even elects the members of the cabinet from a particular party. In the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures there is a caucus for each party. Congressional caucuses typically meet in closed-door sessions to chose leaders and formulate or debate policy positions. They further provide a means for organized ideological diversity in congressional parties. For example, conservatives within the Republican Party in the House of Representatives may join the Republican Study Committee while conservative Democrats have the Blue Dog Coalition. There are also a number of smaller caucuses based on policy issues. These caucuses can be bipartisan and may be open to members of both chambers such as the Congressional Czech Caucus or the Congressional Steel Caucus. Caucuses may be based on race or gender, including the Congressional Black Caucus and the Women’s Caucus.
- Baker, Ross K. House and Senate, 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2001.
- Bibby, John F. Politics, Parties, and Elections in America, 4th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2000.
- Hammond, Susan Web. Congressional Caucuses in National Policymaking. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
- Mitchell, Austin. Caucus:The New Zealand Parliamentary Parties. London: University of London, 1968.
- Skipper, John. The Iowa Caucuses: First Tests of Presidential Aspiration, 1972–2008. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2009.
- Stewart, Charles. Analyzing Congress. New York:W.W. Norton, 2001.
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