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What is a caucus, anyway?

On January 3, America’s quadrennial race for the White House begins in earnest with the Iowa caucuses. If you find yourself wondering precisely what a caucus is, you’re not alone. The Byzantine process by which the US political parties choose their presidential nominees has a jargon all its own. Below is a brief guide to some of the terminology you can expect to see and hear in the coming months as the Republican Party chooses its presidential nominee (the Democratic nominee will be the incumbent, Barack Obama). Confused by a term we haven’t covered here? Ask us in the comments.

caucus: A caucus is a local meeting at which party members express their preference for the party’s presidential nominee. Unlike a primary election, a caucus is run by the party itself, not the state or local government. The most famous caucus is Iowa’s, which is the first major electoral event of the nominating process. Other early states which use a caucus system are Nevada, Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota.

primary: The majority of states hold a primary instead of a caucus. Whereas caucuses are private events, primary elections are operated by state and local governments using the same equipment as a general election. The primaries of 2012 will be spread over more than six months, starting with New Hampshire’s on January 10, and ending with Utah’s on June 26.

beauty contest: In some cases, a state holds a nonbinding primary in addition to its caucuses. That vote is known as a beauty contest. In 2012, Missouri will hold a beauty contest primary on February 7, prior to its binding caucuses on March 17 .

open primaries and closed primaries: An open primary is one in which any voter may participate, even if he or she is not a registered member of the party. A closed primary is open only to registered party members.

Super Tuesday: Tuesday is the traditional day for elections in the United States, and during the presidential nominating process, the Tuesday on which the largest number of states hold their primaries is known as Super Tuesday. This year, Super Tuesday is March 6, when 10 states will hold their primaries, choosing a total of 526 delegates (almost half of the 1212 delegates needed for a Republican candidate to win the nomination).

delegate: Technically, most caucuses and primaries are indirect elections, at which voters choose delegates to their party’s nominating conventions, rather than directly voting for the candidates themselves. The degree to which the voters’ choice binds these delegates varies by party and state.

convention: By the time the primaries and caucuses are finished, the parties’ choice of nominee is known, but it doesn’t become official until the national convention at which party delegates cast their votes. In 2012, the Republican Convention will be held in Tampa, Florida in August, while the Democratic Convention will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina in September.

unpledged delegate: Most of the members of state delegations to the national conventions are pledged, meaning that they are expected to vote in accordance with the rules of their state party. However, each state also has unpledged delegates (sometimes also called superdelegates), usually party officials and officeholders, who are free to vote for whomever they please.

GOP: GOP, an initialism for Grand Old Party, is just a nickname for the Republican Party. According to the OED, the term has been in use since the nineteenth century.