CAUCUS IN OUR CLASSROOM

 

by Jinnie Spiegler

 

This is a simulation lesson which will help students understand the caucus election process by experiencing a caucus firsthand. As they participate in the caucus process in their classroom, they will also learn more about five of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates.

Learning Objectives:

  • Students will learn about and experience the caucus format.
  • Students will learn more about the 2012 Republican presidential candidates.
  • Students will explore their own opinions about issues.
  • Students will experience and be able to articulate the role of democracy and participation in a caucus.
  • Students will understand the difference between a primary and a caucus.
  • Students will better understand the role of money and funding in electing candidates.

Materials

  • Chart paper and markers
  • HANDOUT for each of 5 candidates (see attached pdf)
  • 8 ½ x 11 pieces of paper with each of five candidates' names on it and one sheet marked "Undecided"
  • Issue sheets (attached)

     


Introduction
 

Tell the students that they are going to do an activity to help them learn more about the caucus process. Explain that because this is a presidential election year, each state has a primary election or a caucus. These determine which candidate will be the nominee for each party. President Obama, a Democrat, is running again in 2012 and will almost certainly be the Democratic candidate. The Republicans have begun their primary process to decide who will be their nominee. Explain that out of 50 states, 13 have caucus elections and all of the other states have traditional primary elections. In the 2012 election, caucuses will take place in Maine and Nevada on February 4; and in Colorado and Minnesota on February 7. (Here's a calendar of primaries and caucuses:http://elections.nytimes.com/2012/primaries/calendar.)

What is a Caucus?

Ask: When you vote for something like the student council, what is the process? Have a student explain that the vote is conducted by secret ballot and the votes are tallied at the end to determine the winner. Then ask: Does anyone know what a caucus is? What does "to caucus" mean? Record their responses on the board. Explain that a caucus is different from a regular election in a few ways. Define caucus as: "a closed meeting of a group of people belonging to the same political party or faction usually to select candidates or to decide on policy; a group of people united to promote an agreed-upon cause."

Explain that regular primary elections are open to all registered voters. Just like in general elections, voting is done through a secret ballot. Voters may choose from among all registered candidates and write-ins are counted.

Explain that in caucus elections, people gather in hundreds of places (churches, schools, libraries, homes) across the state. Caucuses are like meetings, open to all registered voters of the party, at which delegates to the party's national convention are selected. They are sometimes called a "gatherings of neighbors." The two parties (Democrat and Republican) have slightly different caucus formats; one of the key differences is that Democrats vote publicly and Republicans vote by secret ballot.

During a caucus, the voters in attendance divide themselves into groups according to the candidate they support. The undecided voters congregate in their own group and prepare to be persuaded by supporters of other candidates. Voters in each group are then invited to give speeches supporting their candidate, trying to persuade others to join their group. At the end of the caucus, officials count the voters in each candidate's group and calculate how many delegates to the convention each candidate has won.

Tell the students that they are going to simulate a real caucus using five of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates. Even though it's for Republicans, they will use the Democratic Party's format by voting publicly. Ask them if they know who any of the candidates are and record their responses on the board.

Money in Elections

While information and dialogue (such as through a caucus) influence who wins elections, so does money. To explore the role of money in elections, ask: What does it mean to "buy" votes? Ask students for examples. If there isn't one, share this: A candidate running for student council president promises to use student council funds to buy new uniforms for the basketball team if the team players vote for her/him. Or perhaps the candidate doesn't make this deal explicit, but campaigns around buying the uniforms with the expectation that this will win the team's votes. The candidate justifies this by saying it will "raise school spirit." In a sense, the person is trying to "buy" votes. Similarly, in elections for local, state, and national offices, sometimes corporations or other interests donate large sums of money to a candidate, which helps them get elected. Later, the candidate feels obligated to support legislation that benefits that donor. For example, a steel company opposes legislation in the Senate that would require steel companies to dramatically reduce their pollution emissions. The steel company feels that it will cost them too much money to abide by this law, so they make a contribution to a Senator who's running for reelection. In exchange, the company expects this Senator to vote against the pollution law.

Money influences elections in other ways. For instance, some candidates have a lot more money than others because they come from a wealthy family or had a lucrative business. They use these funds for more television commercials, advertisements, and staff so that they can reach more people and their campaigns will be more effective.

 


Classroom Caucus 

Tell the students they are going to do a model caucus to learn more about the process.

Fifteen students (about half the class) will be acting as supporters of particular candidates. They will be assigned specific candidates to support. Supporters of each candidate will gather and decide on information they want to present to the rest of the class (who are undecided voters) about their candidate. At the end of the caucus, these candidate supporters can "change their minds," and switch their support to whichever candidate they find most persuasive in the caucus.

The rest of the students will act as undecided voters. At the caucus, they'll decide which candidate to support based on what they hear from the candidates about a selected set of issues. Explain that the issues students will consider are only a few of the many important ones facing candidates in the 2012 election.

A: Candidate Supporters (15 students)

Divide the 15 students into five groups of three. Each group will represent one of the these five candidates: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum. (Perry has left the race but is included here so students have a wide array of candidates to consider.) The amount of time each group of candidate supporters has to speak to the undecided voters will depend on how much money their candidate has. This is to illustrate the role of money in electing candidates. Candidates with more money can afford more mailings, more town meetings, more commercials: They have more time to speak to voters. See the chart below for the time they have to speak.
 

CANDIDATE

FUNDS RAISED
TOTAL TIME FOR SPEECH
Mitt Romney $32.6 million 5 minutes
Rick Perry $17.2 million 4 minutes
Ron Paul $12.8 million 3 minutes
Newt Gingrich $2.9 million 2 minutes
Rick Santorum $1.3 million 1 minute

Give each group the HANDOUT with background information about their candidate. If there is time and you have computer access, you may also give students time to visit the candidates' website as well as provide other resource information, including these helpful websites at CNN and New York Times.

Remind students that sometimes candidates' positions change over the course of an election. The positions in the handouts reflect their views at this point in time.

Give each group 10 minutes to read and discuss the information about their candidate and prepare a presentation aimed at convincing the undecided voters to vote for their candidate. Everyone in the group can speak or they can choose one spokesperson. They should consider how to make the most effective argument for their candidate in the time they're allotted, writing down their points on a sheet of chart paper. Be sure to let them know they will have different amounts of time to speak, based on how much money their candidate has.

B: Undecided Voters (rest of students):

While the candidate supporters are preparing their presentation, the rest of the class will act as undecided voters. These voters are going to decide which candidate they want to support in the caucus based on the candidates' positions on several issues. They will not be assigned specific candidates to support, but will make up their minds (individually) based on what they hear from the candidates at the caucus about their stance on these issues. To help them decide which candidate to support, these students will spend the 10 minutes considering their own opinion on each of these issues. Give each student the "issue sheet" on the last page of the HANDOUT, which lists the following issues:

  • Abortion
  • Same-sex marriage
  • Legalization of marijuana
  • War in Afghanistan
  • Health Care
  • Immigration

Students will spend 10 minutes thinking about each of the 6 issues and will write their own opinion/position on as many of them as they can. Each student should consider which issues are most important to them and circle them on the sheet. Students may also want to talk with each other to explore their thoughts about the issues.
 

Caucus Simulation

Now you're ready to caucus! Read aloud the names of the 5 candidates and put signs with their names in places around the classroom. Have an additional spot marked "undecided." Have students who have been assigned a candidate stand in the section of that candidate. Everyone else should go to the "undecided" section.

Next, each candidate group's spokesperson or (or all the candidate's supporters, depending on what the group has decided) will have time to speak. See the chart for the TOTAL time each group gets (eg, Romney supporters get a total of five minutes, Rick Perry's supporters get a total of four, etc). Because we know that money plays a big role in elections, the amount of time each candidate's supporters have is based on how much money they have. Make sure the speeches are timed carefully, and cut off the presentation if necessary.

Now allow a few minutes for the "undecided voters" in the class to ask questions of the candidates and make points about an issue if they choose. Try to include at least one question or discussion on each of the issues.

After the final arguments, all students, including those who were originally assigned to support a particular candidate, can join whichever candidate group they prefer. Ask students to support whichever candidate they most agree with most, based on what they heard at the caucus. "Undecided" voters can use their sheets to help them consider which candidate's opinions most closely match their own, especially on the issue most important to them. Advise the students that even if they don't like any of the candidates, they should try to pick the one they like the most (or dislike the least) because that's how it would typically happen in a caucus.

Tally the votes and announce the winner and number of votes each candidate received. 
 

Discussion/Processing

  • How was the caucus?
  • How did it feel?
  • Was it different than when you vote by secret ballot? How?
  • What did you like about the caucus process? What didn't you like?
  • How did the spokesperson influence your decision? 
  • Did other people in the room influence your decision? How? Was it verbal/non-verbal?
  • Did anything else influence your decision?
  • Was it more democratic or less democratic than regular elections?
  • Did you participate more or less?
  • Did the role of money have an impact on the outcome? Did it matter that supporters of certain candidates had more time to speak?
  • What would it be like if we voted this way for other elections (student council, school decisions, etc.)?
  • If you were one of the candidate supporters, what was this process like for you?
     

This lesson was written by Jinnie Spiegler for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please emaillmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.