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Classroom Resources: Presidential primaries, caucuses, and conventions

This classroom guide focuses on the process of selecting candidates through primaries, caucuses, and other voting methods. 


Key concepts/standards

  • Accept and fulfill responsibilities associated with citizenship in a free society 
  • Understand how U.S. primary elections work, benefits and drawbacks 
  • Consider opportunities and challenges for reform 
  • Think critically about representation, and how electoral process impacts minority groups

Discussion questions

What is the difference between a primary and a general election?

What are delegates?

What is a national convention?

Who chooses presidential nominees: voters or political parties?

What is the difference between a primary and a caucus?

What is the difference between “winner take all” and “proportional” primaries?

What is ranked-choice voting?

Which voting method is easiest to understand?

Which voting method is most fair to the candidates?

Which voting method does the best job capturing the will of voters? 


Mock primary

For an activity, create a mock presidential primary ballot and have the students rank their candidates from favorite (#1) to least favorite. We recommend including no more than 5 candidates on the ballot to make this activity simpler.  

For fastest results, and if your students have access to technology, you can create the ballots using Survey Monkey or Google Sheets, as explained here.   You can also complete this activity with paper ballots, but you will need to manually gather the results for students. Google Sheets and Survey Monkey both allow you to instantly show the results in a spreadsheet/table.  Provide students with the results, then in small groups or as homework, have students tally the results according to three voting methods:   

  1. Winner-take-all: Tally the votes for students’ #1 choice. The candidate with the most votes wins all of the class’s “delegates.” (Pretend your class gets 10 delegates.)   
  2. Proportional: Tally the votes for students’ #1 choice. Distribute the class’s “delegates” according to the proportion won by each candidate. (Pretend your class gets 10 delegates. This makes it easy to calculate the proportion of delegates for each candidate.)   
  3. Ranked-choice: Tally all of the votes for students’ #1 choice. If no candidate receives over 50% of the vote, cross out any votes for the candidate that came in last place this round. Re-tally the ballots, counting the #2 choice for any ballot that had the #1 candidate crossed out. Continue this process until a candidate receives over 50% of the vote. That candidate wins all of the class’s “delegates.”   

Discuss the results with the class. Did different candidates win using different methods? Which method seems best? 

Mock caucus

In addition or instead of this primary exercise, have your classroom complete a mock caucus. Once again, we recommend including no more than 5 candidates to make this activity simpler.

Designate different areas of your classroom for each candidate. Give your students one minute to go to the area of the room that corresponds to their first-choice candidate.

Give each group one minute to present an argument to the class on why their candidate is the best candidate. This is an opportunity to tie into other lesson plans about researching candidates and making arguments.

After each group presents their argument, give your students another minute to move to a different candidate, if they so choose.

Tally the number of “voters” in each candidate’s area, and present these as the final caucus results.

(This is an abbreviated form of a caucus but gives students an example of how the process differs from a primary.) 


We recommend not using current presidential candidates in this activity to avoid distractions and side-debates in the classroom. Instead, consider using lesser-known candidates or past candidates. You can also pick a few historical presidents, and this can double as a mini history lesson. (May we suggest using these AI-generated images of each president with a mullet? - You may need to log-in to Twitter to see the whole list.)

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