Legislation, Presidential & Congressional Politics/The congressional records


QUESTION: Hello Michael,

I would like to get your expertise on a couple of questions.

1. How can I better understand the elections for the presidents, and the state level candidates. I see all this hoopla on TV about some candidates that have to be nominated by a GOP(what is this?), and I do not know who sponsored what candidate or what organizations are contributing to the presidential candidate's campaign, and as a citizen, I am expected to vote for these candidates, Why?

2. What/who is the caucus?

3. What is the process of candidates being selected, the candidate making the primary and secondary elections, and communicating their planned agendas for when/if he or she ever gets the office?

4. I know that the U.S. congress talk and publish a lot of materials on policies, FDA regulations, and etcetera via the congressional records. Is there a way that I can look at these records via topic or subject, as opposed to the congressional number (ie... the 114th congress)?

ANSWER: Hello,

Under US elections, there are a wide variety of candidates for office.  In addition President, most States are also electing US Senators and Congressmen.  There are also usually candidates at the State level such as Governor or candidates for the State legislature.

Early on in our nation's history, leaders decided creating political parties would help keep elections organized.  Men (at that time only men) joined together with other like minded men to nominate candidates for office.  When a candidate received the endorsement of a particular party, voters could be confident that the candidate stood in favor of at least most of the same issues that the Party supported.  This is still true today.  

It is not required to get a party nomination, but as a practical matter, it is virtually impossible to get elected without a major party's support.  Occasionally, someone may get elected as an independent, i.e. not supported by any major party, but it is the exception rather than the rule.

So, to get elected, a candidate usually first tries to get a major party to endorse or nominate him or her.  At one time, party leaders simply picked whomever they wanted to be the party's nominee.  Over time, however, people wanted a say in who the nominee would be.  Otherwise, they might not like any of the candidates on the ballot.  As a result, most States now have "primary elections."  Primaries are when the parties have their own mini-elections to decide who the party's nominee will be for the next general election.  So, Republicans vote on who the Republican nominee will be, and Democrats will vote for a Democratic nominee.  You asked about the GOP, which stands for "Grand Old Party".  That is simply a nickname given to the Republican party.

Some States still do not have full primary elections to pick a candidate.  Instead, they have a caucus to choose their nominee.  A caucus was originally simply a meeting of party leaders.  However, party rules now usually require states to open a caucus to all members of the party.  But instead of everyone coming in and voting, caucuses usually involve the party members sitting around and debating who the candidate should be before selecting him by a vote of those present.

Once the parties have selected their candidates, either by a primary or caucus, those candidate appear on the ballot for the General election in November.

As I said at the beginning, party nomination help voters get some idea of where a candidate stands since a candidate will usually hold views similar to those of other members of the same party.  However, everyone is a little different.  Some may consider themselves a Democratic on may issues, but may support the Republican view on a few others.  For this reason, many other organization may endorse or oppose a particular candiate.  For example, the NRA may endorse candidates who are against gun control laws.  NARAL endorses candidates who support abortion rights.  AIPAC supports candidates who want to support Israel.  Many of these organizations also give ratings or grades to candidates based on how they have voted on their key issue in the past.  Voters often consider these endorsements or grades on particular issues of importance to them in order to decide who to support.

You also expressed interest in learning more about candidates from their past statements.  The Congressional Record is a transcript of all the debates that have taken place in Congress.  I'm  not sure how useful that is as a source to learn about the candidates since many of the speeches are rather self-serving.  If you are interested, though, there is a searchable database of the Congressional Record available at the Library of Congress web site:


I would also note that Congress only involves itself with legislation.  A great many rules are not made directly through legislation.  Rather, they are made through Federal regulations.  Regulations are rules set forth by various federal agencies, headed by unelected officials who are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

The Code of Federal Regulations essentially has the force of law.  You can search the Code here:


However, this really does not have much debate in it, and is not done by elected officials.  

The other way many people try to understand more about candidates is by understanding who is contributing to their campaigns.  Candidates are required to report all donations to the Federal Election Commission, which maintains an online database of contributors for all federal candidates (President, Senate, and US House of Representative candidates).  You can view that database here:


Admittedly, none of these resources is particularly user friendly.  This is why most people rely on secondary sources, such as news organizations and private web sites to find out more about candidates.  But the records databases do provide a could why to verify many of the claims made.

I hope this helps!
- Mike

[an error occurred while processing this directive]---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: 1. "Many organizations give ratings or grades to the candidates"
How to keep track of these grades?
2. How to keep track of party leaders via government reports?
3. Is there a government office responsible for counting and publishing the votes for both the primary and secondary elections?

Special note: Michael, you have helped me tremendously! I believe that if every one tried to learn the language used in these sources you have given, we would all come to some level of truth! It irritates me that people are not trying to understand the actual primary records!

So many different organizations give different types of ratings, that I've never seen one source that does a comprehensive job of maintaining and tracking all of them.  The Almanac of American Politics does keep a grouping of some of the major ones.  Typically, these are used by the organizations themselves.  You would go to the organizational web site for whatever issue concerned you.  For example, if you cared about how politicians voted on gun control issues, you would visit this NRA web site:


There is no one office responsible for running elections.  All elections, including those for federal office are run by each individual State.  Every State does it a little different.  Typically though, each States, Secretary of State or some similar title, oversees elections, sets up the polling places, counts the votes, and distributes the results.  For example, here is the web site of the Department of Elections for the State of Florida:


At the federal level, the Federal Election Commission is responsible for making sure candidates obey laws relating to campaign contributions, but does not oversee elections themselves.  The Department of Justice deals with other election related issues, such as voter fraud, voter intimidation, redistricting and other issues.  But again, no federal agency directly involves itself in the actual running of the elections and counting votes.  That is all done at the State level with only some federal oversight.

If you are interested in learning more about elections and results, there are some good private sites that aggregate a good deal of historical election information.  A couple of my favorite sites are:

http://270towin.com - which is mostly for presidential election stats.

http://www.thegreenpapers.com/ = which provides more detailed information on election rules and results.

I think one reason so few people research the candidates in any comprehensive way is that it is so difficult to get comprehensive and objective information in one place.  Part of that is simply the nature of elections, where no one can agree on objectivity.

I'm glad I could be of assistance.  Best of luck with your research.

- Mike  

Legislation, Presidential & Congressional Politics

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Michael Troy


I can answer just about any question about U.S. Political history, Constitutional law, the legislative process, elections, etc. I enjoy Presidential and Congressional historical trivia, but can answer more substantive questions too.


Former Staff member for a Congressman and Senator. I also worked on about 10 Congressional and Presidential campaigns (only one that won). For a short time, I worked in the legal department of the Federal Election Commission.    I have a B.A. in Political Science.

Former LBJ Fellow (paid fellowship for Congressional Staff).
Pi Sigma Alpha (Political Science Honorary Society).

Washington Post
Washington Times

J.D. University of Michigan
B.A. George Washington University (Poli. Sci. major).

Awards and Honors
LBJ Fellow
Truman Scholar

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