What is a Caucus? - Definition & System

Instructor: Evan Farr

Evan has taught introductory and advanced courses in political science, philosophy, and general education. He has a Ph.D. in Government.

In this lesson, you will learn the meaning of the word ''caucus'' as it applies to legislative and electoral politics, as well as some details on the way caucuses function.

Definition and History of Caucuses

If you were to open a random article on a politics website today, you would likely come across the word caucus. However, without any background in politics, you might quickly become confused by the multiple contexts in which it is used. What is the difference between the Iowa Caucuses and the Senate Republican Caucus, for example? And do they have anything to do with the Congressional Black Caucus or the Tea Party Caucus?

A caucus is an organization of a group of members within a larger voting body. These groups convene to make decisions for the party (or group). The precise origin of the word is obscure, but its earliest known use referred to the Boston Caucus, or 'Caucas Clubb,' an influential political group in Boston, Massachusetts, in the years immediately before and after the American Revolution.

In the context of American politics, there are three separate ways in which this word is most frequently used: party caucuses within legislative bodies; interest caucuses, also within legislative bodies; and presidential nominating caucuses conducted at the state level.

The Green Dragon Tavern, early meeting place of the Boston Caucus.
Meeting place of the Boston Caucus

Party Caucuses in the U.S. Congress and State Legislatures

When used in relation to the U.S. Congress (including the House of Representatives and the Senate) and state legislatures, the word caucus can refer to the voting members of either of the two major political parties (the Democrats and the Republicans). If you were to hear 'Senate Republican Caucus,' for example, the speaker would be referring to the organization of senators affiliated with the Republican Party.

In the House of Representatives and the Senate, many important decisions are made by the majority caucus (that is, the caucus of the party with the most members in the legislative body) before they are voted upon by the full body, including leadership positions and committee chairmanships. In the House of Representatives, this includes the selection of the Speaker of the House, who wields tremendous power over the legislative agenda and is second in the line of succession to the presidency (after the vice president).

When members of the majority caucus agree about its policy positions and priorities, the body's legislative agenda can be set at the caucus level as well. Though informal, this legislative function is perhaps the most important role of the party caucus: it is within this context that much of a legislature's logrolling will occur, where individual members are cajoled (and occasionally coerced) to support their party's legislative agenda through committee assignments and other incentives.

Other Caucuses in the U.S. Congress and State Legislatures

'Caucus' is also used to describe smaller formal groups within Congress that are organized according to a commonality, whether it's ideological, ethnic or interest group-based. While this may appear confusing at first, it remains true to the basic idea introduced before: the Tea Party Caucus includes a subset of members who identify as members of the conservative Tea Party movement, while the Congressional Black Caucus includes a subset of members who are African-American.

These caucuses have no formal decision-making role, but they often function as voting blocs - groups who vote the same way on an agenda that has been agreed to within the caucus. While these groups are sometimes restricted to a single party (the Tea Party Caucus, for example, only includes Republicans), there are also bipartisan caucuses. The Congressional Steel Caucus, which advocates for the American steel industry, is an example of a bipartisan caucus, composed mostly of legislators from steel-producing regions.

President Jimmy Carter meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus in 1977.
President Jimmy Carter meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus in 1977

Nominating Caucuses

What about those Iowa Caucuses we hear so much about every four years? While they serve a different function than legislative caucuses, once again the principle remains the same. Instead of holding a primary election, where party members simply vote in a statewide election for their preferred candidate, in Iowa members of each party gather together in local meetings to debate and choose who they prefer to be their party's presidential candidate.

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