Lesson Plan: Primaries and Caucuses

States' Rights and Determining the System of Primaries or Caucuses

Frank Fahrenkopf, co-Chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, discusses political parties and States' rights in determining their state's system of Primary or Caucuses.


As our country prepares for a presidential election, each state determines the process through which it will select delegates to send to the National Conventions. Each state’s political party committee establishes the rules by which the delegates will be selected. The rules and processes may change over time; however, the two systems in which voters primarily participate are the primary and caucus. Voters attend primaries and caucuses to select delegates to represent their state at their party’s convention. Delegates attend the conventions and cast their votes to determine their party’s candidate for President of the United States. In this lesson, students will a) examine the caucus and primary systems of selecting delegates, b) discuss the processes involved in the two systems, and c) determine the pros and cons for each system.





    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people

    The Tenth Amendment provides states with the right to determine the system in which they select delegates to attend the National Conventions. States conduct primaries and caucuses where voters cast their ballots for delegates who will represent them at the National Conventions. At the conventions, the delegates vote to select their party’s candidate for President of the United States. These systems have evolved over time. How effective is the process?

    View the video on Primaries and Caucuses to provide additional background:

    VIDEO CLIP: Primaries and Caucuses (1:53)

  • STEP 1.

    Distribute the Primaries and Caucuses handout (linked above). Ask students to take notes and complete the chart as they view the videos in this lesson. Introduce students to the Caucus and Primary systems by viewing the video below:

    VIDEO CLIP: Caucus and Primary Systems (1:21)

    After viewing, discuss the following questions:

    • Who determines which system will be implemented in each state?

    • What are some basic differences between the two systems that are expressed in this video?

    As a class, view the following videos clips and ask students to answer the corresponding questions:

    VIDEO CLIP: Who Can Vote in Primaries and Caucuses? (1:05)

    Who can vote in the primaries?

    VIDEO CLIP: The Differences Between Republican and Democratic Primaries (1:05)

    Who makes the rules regarding the allocation of delegates in each party?

    VIDEO CLIP: Proportional vs Winner-Take-All Allocation of Delegates (3:35)

    Discuss the differences between the Proportional and the Winner-Take-All systems. How does this differ for the Democratic Party in the general election?

    VIDEO CLIP: Pledged Delegates and Unpledged Super Delegates (2:46)

    Explain to students that when voters cast their ballots in the primaries, they are actually voting for delegates who will represent them at the National Convention. Voters expect their pledged delegates to represent their votes for the candidate who they selected to be president. What about the unpledged Super Delegates? Who are they? Do they exist in both the Republican and Democratic parties?

    VIDEO CLIP: Who Participates in Primary Elections vs General Election (1:24)

    Who are the voters who participate in primaries? How does that differ compared to the voters who participate in the general election? Can this effect an election?

    VIDEO CLIP: Regional, Rotating, and Inverse Pyramid Primaries (3:39)

    What are some possible modifications that can be made to the current process?


    Ask students to share their ideas on the role that Independent voters have in primaries and caucuses.

    View the following video and discuss the role of independent voters in these systems. Should they be permitted to participate in all primaries and caucuses? If so, what effects could this have on the process?

    VIDEO CLIP: Independent Voters in in Primaries and Caucuses (2:33)


    View clip below about the Iowa Caucus and discuss the questions below.

    VIDEO CLIP: Iowa Caucus Exhibit (6:43)

    • Who is present at a caucus? How does this group of people affect the caucus?

    • Discuss the meaning of the phrase “retail politicking”.

    • How do both the people who attend the caucus, and the candidates, benefit from this experience?

    • Where do caucus voters gather?

    • Describe the differences between Republican and Democratic Caucuses.
  • STEP 2.

    View the video and discuss why states prefer to conduct their primaries and caucuses earlier in the year and the consequences of this action.

    VIDEO CLIP: Front Loading: Real Politicking vs. Super Tuesday and Big Money (3:06)

  • STEP 3

    As a class, discuss the pros and cons of each system. Then ask students to propose any changes they think should be made to each of these systems.


    Students will participate in a conversation about primaries and caucuses. This will allow them to implement their listening and speaking skills while discovering how ideas emerge and new understandings are arrived at during conversations. Students may read related materials on this topic before moving on to the small group activity. You may consider developing guidelines for conversations with your students; some examples may be, listening to peers’ ideas without interrupting, looking at the speaker, responding respectfully, no side conversations, building on each other’s ideas, etc.

    Create a chart of these guidelines and placing it in an area of the classroom for students to see can serve as a reminder throughout the process. The teacher will circulate among the groups to ensure the conversation is moving forward and assess students’ participation.

    Have students evaluate the information on their charts and consider the classroom discussions. Ask them to decide for themselves which system, a primary or caucus, they think is the most effective method for selecting delegates. Students should write down at least three points that support their position. They will use these points during their small group activity.


    Divide students into small groups that are based on their choice of which system they feel is the most effective. Each group should consist of two perspectives: one that supports the caucus process, and one that supports the primary process. Students can begin their conversations by presenting one point from their list. Each student will share at least one idea to ensure participation. Students may build on each other’s ideas during this time. They should be encouraged to take notes and write down any questions that emerge during the discussion.

    Once the conversation is completed, have students reflect independently on the information that was shared as well as on their own participation. Have them answer the following questions on the back of their handouts:

    • What new information did you learn as a result of this conversation?

    • Did your thinking change? Explain your answer.

    • Did you listen and respond respectfully to your peers’ ideas?

    • What questions do you have?

    For additional activities to use with your students such as debates, hearings, Socratic Seminars, and position papers, visit the C-SPAN Classroom Deliberations website

Additional Resource


  • Absentee Ballot
  • Caucus
  • Closed Primary
  • Front Loading
  • General Election
  • Independent Candidate
  • Open Primary
  • Pledged Delegates
  • Primary
  • Unpledged Superdelegates


Campaigns & ElectionsPolitical Parties


Middle SchoolHigh School