What's the difference between a caucus and a primary election? Here's how each works.

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The 2024 election season kicked off last week with a frost-bitten start as Iowa Republicans headed to their caucus in freezing weather. Former President Donald Trump cruised to a notably early and wide victory, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis narrowly edged out Nikki Haley for second place. In another twist, DeSantis dropped out of the race less than 48 hours before the New Hampshire primary.

The contest, which has the power to reshape a presidential race, is just one of several caucuses held throughout the election. But what makes a caucus different from a primary? And how does a primary end up ultimately factoring into the general election?

USA TODAY is answering all your questions about how the country votes and why it matters.

How do primaries work?

The primary elections, a precursor to the general contest, help determine which candidates will be nominated by their respective parties to battle it out in November for the White House.

Voters are not directly electing a candidate, however. They're choosing delegates that will represent them at the national party conventions, which are set to take place this summer.

Each state is given a specific number of delegates. Some states have a winner-take-all system, meaning the candidate with the most votes in a given primary gets all the delegates.

Other states, however, opt to split up the delegates by the percentage of votes each candidate receives. That's known as proportional allocation. The mathematical details of that division can vary by state and party.

The Republican National Committee mandates that states with elections before March 15 use the proportional allocation method and allows for states to establish a minimum percentage of the vote up to 20% for a candidate to receive delegates.

Who's running for president in 2024? Every remaining Republican and Democrat

How do the conventions work?

After Americans vote in primaries and caucuses across the country, delegates head to the party conventions.

Delegates are generally tied to a certain candidate ahead of a party's convention. That's because voters, through primaries and caucuses, have already reflected which candidate they want the delegate to support.

On the GOP side, a small number of states allow for "unbound" delegates, who can cast a vote as they choose. On the Democratic side, there are also "unpledged" delegates, but they don't participate in the first round of voting if it is a contested convention − one in which no candidate has a majority of delegates going into the event.

If a candidate fails to secure a majority on the first round of voting at a convention, it becomes known as a "brokered convention." In this rare case, the convention moves to additional rounds of voting, where rules for delegates can change.

What about an open vs. closed primary?

If a state has an open primary, voters cast ballots for whichever candidate they prefer, regardless of party registration. A Republican can vote for a Democrat and vice versa.

A partially open primary allows voters to jump the party line, but they must first publicly declare new party affiliation.

In a closed primary, voters can choose only among the candidates running in their registered party. A partially closed primary allows a political party to decide before each election cycle whether voters not affiliated with any party can cast a ballot for their party's nomination.

California and Washington use a "top two" format, in which all candidates are listed together, and the two receiving the most votes move on to the general elections. Alaska uses the same system but with the top four candidates.

Primary vs. caucus

While a primary election is run by state and local governments, a caucus is run by political parties. A traditional primary election resembles the general election, with voting via private ballot.

A caucus, however, involves voters dividing themselves into groups based on the candidate they prefer and arguing for others to join them. At the end of the caucus, the number of members in each group determines how many delegates that candidate gets.

Which states have a caucus?

The number of states that hold caucuses is much smaller than the number of states that opt for a primary. In some states, the type of contest varies based on party.

Democratic caucuses:

  • Iowa

  • Wyoming

  • Idaho

  • Virgin Islands

  • Guam

Republican caucuses:

  • Iowa

  • Nevada

  • Virgin Islands

  • Idaho

  • Missouri

  • North Dakota

  • Alaska

  • Utah

  • Hawaii

When is the primary in my state?

The primary schedule can get confusing, especially as the election cycle heats up.

For a rundown on when voting begins in your state, check out our rundown on the Republican and Democratic primary schedules.

Which House seats are up for election?: Races to watch in 2024

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How do caucuses and primaries work? Presidential nomination explained.