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Lesson Plans

What are the Primaries and Caucuses?

February 22, 2020

Full Lesson



U.S. History, Social Studies, U.S. Government, Civics

Estimated Time:

One to two 50-minute periods

Grade Level

Grades 6-12


After completing this lesson, students will understand the primary system in which candidates for U.S. president are nominated by the Democratic and Republican parties. They will identify and understand differences between primaries and caucuses and key terms related to the primary season.


This lesson may be used to introduce students to the system of primaries and caucuses ahead of Election 2020. It will take 1 – 2 class periods. It may be used in any social studies class, U.S. government or civics course. 


  1. Begin by giving your students some background on the nominating process and primary season in the race for U.S. president. You may wish to have your students read the following ARTICLE or watch this VIDEO for an overview of primaries and caucuses.
  2. Next, give your students the PRIMARIES HANDOUT (click here for the KEY) and have them complete it individually or in small groups. Students will need government or civics textbooks and/or computers with internet access.
  3. Having gained a basic understanding of the nomination process, you may now have your students discuss, debate, and analyze the following issues. You may wish to do this in small groups, as an entire class, or by having your students select one issue and write about it.
    1. The System
      1. Think about the process of nominating a party’s candidate for president. How has this process changed over the last 40 years? Why?
      2. What impact have these changes had on nominating conventions?
      3. What do you think of these changes?
    2. The Schedule
      1. Explain the impact of frontloading.
      2. What special importance does the primary schedule give to states with earlier primaries?
      3. To candidates who organize and fundraise early?
      4. What has happened to the effective length of the primary season?
      5. Read the Vox article, “The strange and crucially important order of the Democratic primary states, explained.” Why is the schedule of the primaries and caucuses important?
    3. Comparisons
      1. Compare the primaries and caucuses to the general election for president in terms of participation.
      2. What percentage of the population votes in primaries?
      3. How does this differ from the general election for president?
      4. How else do those who vote in the primaries differ from the electorate as a whole? Analyze the implications of these differences.

Extension Activity

  1. Watch “Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency,” which showcases a political rite of passage more than four decades in the making. This yearlong project shows how Iowa became the political epicenter and launching pad for the world’s most powerful position, the president of the United States. The documentary includes recent interviews with political leaders from across the country on their memories of campaigning. Watch the intro below and the rest of the documentary, if time allows.

2. Have your students get involved in your state’s primary/caucus. You can find your state HERE.

    1. What is the history of primaries and/or caucuses in your state?
    2. How do the parties differ in the rules they set for the primary or caucus in your state?
    3. How would an interested voter get more involved in the process?
    4. What special role, if any, is your state’s primary or caucus likely to have in this year’s presidential primary season?
    5. Who do you expect to do well in your state and why?
    6. Students may get more involved by working on the campaigns of particular candidates, helping to inform voters by volunteering for nonpartisan organizations such as The League of Women Voters, or by “poll watching” on primary day.

3. Just in case you haven’t seen it, check out the Iowa Caucus video featuring Legos:

Or this one featuring GUMMY BEARS!

About the Author: Laura Maupin was the social studies and student government adviser at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. This lesson has been adapted to include information on Election 2020.