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The Big Issues Of The 2016 Campaign
With less than a year to go before the election, FiveThirtyEight’s staff members took a detailed look at seven issues we cover regularly, examining the positions of the presidential candidates and suggesting developments likely to arise before the voting takes place.

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The Economy

After two straight elections dominated by economic issues, 2016 is shaping up to be … another election dominated by economic issues. In polls, voters consistently rank the economy as their top concern, and candidates from Jeb Bush to Bernie Sanders have put dollars and cents at the center of their campaigns.

But far from offering a clear advantage to one party, the economy offers risks and opportunities for all the candidates. Unless things change significantly in the next 12 months, the economy is neither good enough nor bad enough to provide either side with a completely clean narrative.


On the one hand, the economy has improved dramatically under President Obama. The unemployment rate has fallen to 5 percent, from 7.8 percent when Obama took office in 2009 and a high of 10 percent that same year, and job growth has been consistently strong. Corporate profits and financial markets have both rebounded strongly from their recession-era lows, and overall economic output has been resilient in the face of challenges domestic and foreign. All of that should work to the advantage of the party that has controlled the White House for the past eight years.

But Democrats haven’t seemed eager to embrace Obama’s legacy. Sanders takes every opportunity to rail against an economy that benefits primarily “millionaires and billionaires.” And though Hillary Clinton is more measured, she has sounded similar notes; in a major economic speech over the summer, she said the economy “still isn’t delivering” for ordinary Americans.

There’s no mystery about why Democrats are being cautious. Americans remain uneasy about the economy, even if they have become more sanguine in recent years. In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, just 47 percent of Democrats — and only 4 percent of Republicans — reported being “cautiously optimistic” about the economy. That dissatisfaction is driven by a harsh reality: Six-plus years after the recession officially ended, there has been no meaningful recovery in household income.

Republicans clearly see an opening. At last month’s CNBC debate, which focused on economic issues, candidate after candidate blamed Obama and the Democrats for stagnant wages, persistent inequality and lackluster economic growth. Marco Rubio said the American dream is “slipping away.” John Kasich promised to “get this economy moving again.” And Bush, who has based his campaign in part on a pledge to return the country to 4 percent annual growth, asked viewers to “imagine a country where people are lifted out of poverty again.”

But Republicans face their own delicate dance. The middle class didn’t exactly thrive under the last Republican president; median household income rose sharply in the 1990s but was stagnant in the 2000s, when George W. Bush was in office. Then there’s the small matter of the financial crisis, which struck on Bush’s watch and sparked the worst recession since the Great Depression. Bush doesn’t necessarily deserve much blame for the economic collapse, but Democrats haven’t been shy about reminding voters who was in office when it happened.

All of this presumes that the economy on Election Day next year will resemble the one we see today, but that’s far from a safe assumption. In November 2007, many pundits expected the upcoming presidential campaign to focus on security and international issues. The Great Recession began one month later.

Environment and Science

Environment and Science

Climate change is one of the most partisan issues in the presidential race, and it’s one that will continue to make news in the coming election cycle. This year’s United Nations climate talks, which get underway in Paris at the end of this month, aim to produce a binding agreement that would get the world closer to preventing temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, beyond which global warming is likely to become catastrophic. The plan submitted to the U.N. by the Obama administration pledges to reduce U.S. emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels, a target that would be achieved mostly through administrative actions. Those actions have received intense criticisms from Republicans and are the subject of lawsuits from industry groups and some states, particularly in coal country.

Although Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — who are running for the Democratic presidential nomination — argue about which of them is doing enough to fight climate change, the leading Republican presidential candidates dispute the scientific consensus that global warming is driven by human activities. (Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio acknowledge that warming is happening but question the extent to which it’s human-caused.) Rubio and Ted Cruz have both signed the “no climate tax pledge” promoted by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers, vowing to oppose any climate change legislation that includes a net increase in government revenue.

Energy policy also will be hotly debated in 2016. President Obama’s recent decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline is already a significant issue in the presidential race, becoming a proxy for the argument about whether jobs are more important than environmental concerns. (Even though the project’s effect on jobs and the environment is probably overstated.) Clinton and Sanders opposed the pipeline, while most of the Republican candidates supported it. Other energy issues that could make an appearance in the campaigns include Environmental Protection Agency regulations on power plant emissions, fracking regulations, tax credits and subsidies for renewable energy, drilling in the Arctic and carbon taxes.

After years of cutbacks, federal spending on science is at its lowest percentage of the budget since World War II, according to a recent MIT report.


The two-year budget deal just approved by Congress and Obama is likely to increase science spending, particularly for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. That deal was opposed by virtually all the GOP presidential candidates and supported by the Democrats. Final details on how the budget will be allocated await negotiation, but a proposal by Senate appropriators this year would give a $2 billion boost to the NIH, which the American Association for the Advancement of Science says would represent the largest single-year increase in a decade.

Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice

The two major parties have been having mostly separate conversations about criminal justice. But as mass shootings continue, as well as debates about incarceration, crime and violence committed by police officers, those conversations could converge.


Already there is some common ground between the Democratic candidates and several Republican contenders. For instance, both Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, and Republican Rand Paul, a libertarian, support demilitarizing police departments. Democrat Hillary Clinton has called for “ending the era of mass incarceration,” while Republican John Kasich has called for the end of imprisonment for people with mental illnesses and rehab for prisoners addicted to drugs. Republican Ben Carson, Clinton and Sanders all praise the use of body cameras to record police interactions with civilians — although they don’t all agree on how to pay for them. And both Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, and Chris Christie, a Republican, back so-called “ban the box” provisions that would prevent employers from initially asking job candidates about their criminal histories.

The common ground disappears on the subject of guns. Expect the two eventual nominees to spar on the issue, which divides voters by party and should provide them with one of the clearest contrasts between candidates next November.

On their websites, most of the Republican candidates assert their support for Second Amendment rights.Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump. Carly Fiorina’s website doesn’t have specific issues sections, but a search for “guns” on the site’s “answers” section brings up several videos of her speaking about the importance of protecting Second Amendment rights.

">1 They tout top grades from the National Rifle Association, oppose reinstatement of the assault-weapons ban and defend the right to carry concealed firearms. (Jeb Bush’s website is a notable exception, with no section on guns, although he received an A+ from the NRA when he was governor of Florida.)

Democratic candidates support more gun control — and disagree among themselves about how much. Sanders doesn’t mention guns in his online platform, and opponents attacked him at the Oct. 13 debate for being soft on guns. Front-runner Clinton says she will expand background checks and make it harder to buy guns online and at gun shows. O’Malley calls for a national firearms registry and a minimum age of 21 for handgun ownership.

Without a significant change in sentiment or membership in Congress, it’s unlikely that Clinton or O’Malley could, if elected, enact gun-control legislation. As Clinton says on her website, efforts to expand background checks failed after the 2013 school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, “but Hillary is not giving up — she will continue to fight for legislation.”

Just a few candidates mention other criminal-justice issues that have been and will continue to be debated outside of the presidential race. Sanders and O’Malley have joined the calls of Eric Holder, when he was still the attorney general, and FBI Director James B. Comey for better government data on the number of people killed by police officers. Sanders and Clinton use the phrase “black lives matter” to reference the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement to focus attention on the victims of police violence who are black, after earlier struggles to connect with the movement. Among Republicans, Paul has said many African-Americans are “trapped” in the war on drugs but criticized the name Black Lives Matter. Comey, meanwhile, recently joined some city police chiefs in claiming that increased scrutiny from advocates and the public after police killings has chilled law enforcement, a theory with little evidence that Christie supported during and after the Oct. 28 Republican debate. O’Malley also wants to end the sentencing disparity between offenses involving powder cocaine and crack cocaine, which was reduced in 2010 but advocates say is still too large. Clinton pledges to fight campus sexual assault, which other candidates don’t mention in their platforms but is a widespread problem receiving increasing attention.

Health Care

Health Care

The soaring price of drugs — the legal kind — has moved into the headlines and the 2016 presidential race. Pharmaceutical companies are under fire for jacking up prices for new and generic drugs. Medicare spent $4.6 billion during the first half of 2015 on expensive drugs to treat hepatitis C, and new treatments for high cholesterol are so expensive that people are debating whether the value is worth the price. Poll after poll shows that high drug prices are the leading health care concern in the United States. Recent polls have found that the majority of people think pharmaceutical companies are to blame and that the government should negotiate prices for Medicare and force companies to release pricing information.

Bernie Sanders has said he’ll do both of these things (and also import drugs from Canada). Hillary Clinton, his opponent for the Democratic nomination, said she would require insurance plans to put a $250 monthly cap on out-of-pocket drug spending for people with chronic or serious conditions, and increase competition for specialty drugs. (In a recent debate, both candidates named drug companies as among the enemies they are most proud to have.)

Republican Marco Rubio has said some drug companies have engaged in “pure profiteering,” and Donald Trump said it was “disgusting” that one company wanted to raise the price on an AIDS drug by 5,000 percent. A few other Republicans have called for reduced regulation during debates. Nonetheless, don’t necessarily expect concrete plans on how to reduce drug prices from most of the candidates, particularly Republicans. Although polling says everyone is worried about the issue, there are few concrete policy solutions to rally around or divide people politically. That makes it a net benefit for politicians to express concern about the issue, whether or not they have a plan for how to fix it.

Calls to restructure Medicare, the national insurance program for people over 65, will also turn up in the primaries and beyond, though with Republican candidates largely divided on the topic, the tone of that debate will depend on who gets the party nomination. Jeb Bush and Rubio have embraced plans similar to new House Speaker Paul Ryan’s longtime push to end the current program (he would instead dole out a lump sum to the elderly to buy private insurance or traditional fee-for-service Medicare). Trump has said he’ll leave the program alone, and Chris Christie wants to raise the age of eligibility and charge higher premiums to wealthy seniors. The program’s costs are rising and are projected to nearly double by 2025.a March 2015 report from the CBO and represent Medicare spending required by law (but not discretionary spending) and required coverage for Medicare Part D, including payments to prescription drug plans, employer group waiver plans, the retiree drug subsidy, and the low-income subsidy.


Medicaid, the public insurance program for poor people and people with disabilities, is even more polarizing. Democrats want to expand the program, and many Republicans call for reducing and privatizing it (though Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Christie of New Jersey expanded Medicaid in their states under the Affordable Care Act).

Since we’re a year out from the election, new health care topics will probably arise, but one has already been mentioned with frequency: Obamacare. All of the Republican candidates say they will repeal the law, while the Democratic candidates pledge to uphold it. Clinton and Sanders have talked about repealing the so-called Cadillac tax (the rare issue enjoying bipartisan support), however, which would tax the most generous employer-sponsored health insurance plans starting in 2018.

Privacy and Data Security

Privacy and Data Security

The federal government’s surveillance of data — particularly the widespread harvesting of cellphone metadata of American citizens and people around the world — is a rare issue that doesn’t fall neatly along party lines. Those candidates who favor more privacy and less snooping include Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, and Republicans Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. “The National Security Agency’s data collection program went too far in collecting the phone records of Americans,” Cruz has said. Republicans Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, on the other hand, argue that surveillance produces greater security; Bush has said there is no evidence that the metadata program has violated anybody’s civil liberties. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, has been on both sides of the issue: As a senator, she voted for the Patriot Act, which permitted much of the surveillance, in 2001 and to renew it five years later. But after a federal court ruled earlier this year that the metadata-gathering program was illegal, she began advocating for tighter restrictions on the NSA’s information-gathering.

These divisions may sharpen in the coming months with several news stories that will likely receive political attention.

The European Parliament recently voted to ask member nations to protect Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked classified information about the surveillance program, and to “prevent extradition or rendition by third parties, in recognition of his status as whistle-blower and international human rights defender.”

The U.S. Senate recently passed the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, which sets up a mechanism for companies to share data with the federal government on hacker attacks. Sanders and Paul have made another bipartisan show of disapproval, agreeing with critics who say the bill’s goal of rapidly transferring corporate information to government agencies doesn’t provide enough assurances that private customer information will be removed from the documents. Rubio supports the bill, and Clinton and Donald Trump, who is seeking the Republican nomination, have not declared a position, like many of the candidates.

In response to accusations that the Chinese government is hacking into American websites, Republican Mike Huckabee has advocated hacking right back. “We should hack the cell phones of some prominent Communist party leaders, hack the bank accounts of intelligence officials, publicly humiliate Chinese families for political corruption, or wipe-out a few critical Chinese computer systems,” his website says. Trump, too, has called for a “counter attack” against the Chinese hackers, saying that “these actions border on being acts of war.” Clinton says she prefers to encourage China to act responsibly, holding it accountable (though not specifying how) if it does not.

Another issue unrelated to surveillance is net neutrality, the movement to prevent Internet providers from favoring or blocking particular websites. On that subject, the divisions are more familiar. Republicans have lined up in support of congressional efforts to roll back the Federal Communications Commission’s neutrality rules, with Carly Fiorina calling them “crony capitalism.” Sanders and Clinton are fully behind the FCC’s rules, and Sanders has supported efforts to go even further to promote Internet competition.



Only 4 percent of Americans consider education the nation’s most important problem, according to Gallup’s monthly polling, which may explain why we haven’t heard much about specific education policy from the presidential candidates.


So far, the education subject the candidates have spoken about most often — college affordability — is one of the few things in the education sphere that most people can agree on, regardless of political affiliation. And it’s becoming more urgent. In a recent Gallup-Purdue poll, 50 percent of college graduates said they strongly believed their education was worth it, but that percentage shrank to 38 percent for those who graduated from 2006 to 2015. Nearly half of recent graduates with student loan debt have put off further education because of those loans; a third have delayed buying a house or car because of student loans, and nearly 20 percent have put off starting a business for the same reason.

All of the Democratic candidates have made the high cost of college a key part of their campaigns, and many of the Republican candidates, including Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Chris Christie, have laid out their own plans for how to deal with the issue. Democratic candidates’ platforms focus on, among other things, either eliminating tuition (Hillary Clinton’s plan would make community college free, and Bernie Sanders’s would make all public colleges and universities free) or dramatically reducing it. Republican plans focus more on ways to encourage colleges to reduce their costs by accrediting nontraditional education or making colleges responsible for student loan interest.

But the real fault line is likely to be K-12 education, particularly the Common Core curriculum and charter schools. A recent Education Next poll found that 57 percent of Democrats favor using the Common Core standards in their state, and only 37 percent of Republicans do. On charter schools, 56 percent of Republicans supported their formation, compared with 40 percent of Democrats.

Thus far, the Democratic candidates have been relatively quiet on all things K-12, whereas the Republican field has been more vocal about things like the Common Core, school choice and the role of the federal government.

One issue that has been gaining attention, especially since President Obama spoke about it two weeks ago, is the role of standardized testing. Voters in both major parties agree that it’s a problem: PDK/Gallup’s annual education poll found that 60 percent of Republicans and 71 percent of Democrats believe there’s too much emphasis on standardized testing in public schools. We haven’t heard much from the candidates on this issue yet, but if polling is any indicator of what they’ll focus on, it’s only a matter of time.

Religion and Social Issues

Religion and Social Issues

The 2016 presidential campaign doesn’t look like it will be dominated by faith issues: same-sex marriage was settled by the Supreme Court, and fetal tissue research, one of the social issues that has gotten the most play in debates to date, has been taken off the table by Planned Parenthood’s choice to stop accepting compensation for fetal tissue.

Nonetheless, because these issues are perceived as red meat for religious voters, many of the candidates have brought them up in their rallies, debate statements and websites.

Some Republican candidates have put their faith front and center: Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum all speak about how their religion has shaped their character and their choice to run for president. Other Republican candidates speak less personally about their religious practice, but still prominently include on their websites religion-linked issues such as restrictions on abortion; cutting funding for Planned Parenthood; and allowing businesses and individuals to opt out of providing services for abortion, contraception or gay marriage. Jeb Bush, Donald Trump and Chris Christie have no religion-related positions listed prominently on the issues sections of their websites.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’s issue pages specifically include access to abortion and continued funding for Planned Parenthood, as well as endorsing the Equality Act to add sex, sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classes protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Martin O’Malley doesn’t include any particularly religion-related issues in his 15 Goals.

It’s hard to predict at this point how important these issues will be in the decisions of religious voters. America’s faithful tend to be fairly diverse in their political leanings, so winning them over is more a matter of microtargeting than a broad appeal to “values voters.”

According to a 2012 Pew Research Center report, Hispanic Catholics have favored Democrats by an average 41-point margin over the last four presidential elections, while white Catholics have voted for Republicans by an 11-point margin. There are similar massive gaps between black Protestants (D+85) and white Protestants, whether the latter are mainline (R+11) or evangelical (R+55).3

Many denominations have had big partisan tilts in how they voted in recent elections, and the splits remain present when members of different faiths are asked whether they favor Democrats or Republicans generally. More recent data from the May 2014 wave of Pew’s Religious Landscape Study, seen in the table below, shows splits by party affiliation.

Black Protestant D +70 76% 6.5% -0.4
Buddhist D +53 69 0.7 0.0
Hindu D +48 32 0.7 0.3
Muslim D +45 47 0.9 0.5
Jewish D +38 79 1.9 0.2
Unaffiliated D +31 63 22.8 6.7
Jehovah’s Witness D +11 17 0.8 0.2
Orthodox Christian D +10 60 0.5 -0.1
Catholic D +7 67 20.8 -3.1
Mainline Protestant R +4 77 14.7 -3.4
Evangelical R +28 73 25.4 -0.9
Mormon R +51 75 1.6 -0.1

Denominations that have tended to support Democrats are growing as a share of the population. Unaffiliated people have the largest gains (6.7 percentage points from 2007 to 2014), while the populations of Hindus, Muslims and Jews have increased (albeit by very small amounts). Catholics and mainline Protestants have had the steepest slides in population (more than 3 percentage points). Catholics weakly favor Democrats (on net, though they diverge by race), and mainline Protestants weakly favor Republicans.

One other religious division to watch as the election approaches is the way political leanings vary based on how often people attend worship services. The more often a given voter goes to religious services, the more likely he or she is to vote for the Republican nominee.

Americans went to religious services slightly less often in 2014 than they did in 2007. The shifts are very small (1 to 2 percentage points) but are all in the direction of lower church attendance. If the numbers represent a real shift, the changes would still marginally weaken the Republican nominee.4

Individual candidates can have particular pulls on specific religious groups (Romney brought Mormons to the polls in 2012), but, in general, your best guess for how the candidates will do is just the historical data, adjusted by who’s been gaining and losing members since the last election. And that data looks better for the Democrats than the Republicans.


  1. Including Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump. Carly Fiorina’s website doesn’t have specific issues sections, but a search for “guns” on the site’s “answers” section brings up several videos of her speaking about the importance of protecting Second Amendment rights.

  2. There are numerous ways to tally Medicare spending totals, and there are two official sources for the numbers: the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Medicare Board of Trustees. The numbers in this chart are from a March 2015 report from the CBO and represent Medicare spending required by law (but not discretionary spending) and required coverage for Medicare Part D, including payments to prescription drug plans, employer group waiver plans, the retiree drug subsidy, and the low-income subsidy.

  3. Voting data for white evangelical and mainline protestants was not available for 2000, so these figures are for the last three elections.

  4. More-than-weekly attendance dropped from 15 percent to 14 percent of Americans; weekly attendance dropped from 24 percent to 22 percent.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Christie Aschwanden was a lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight. Her book “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery” is available here.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Hayley Munguia is a former social media editor and a data reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.