ALBANY — Issues such as Second Amendment gun rights, climate change, abortion, campaign finance reform and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 were among the flashpoints during the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries, but they have gotten little attention in the presidential campaign since.
Political scientists, however, say some of the issues will return during the upcoming debates and in the general election campaign as each candidate tries to drive their most fervent supporters to the polls and sway undecided and independent voters.
“I think they are going to be talking to their bases, because I don’t think they are settled,” said Candice J. Nelson, academic director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University in Washington, D.C., an expert in presidential elections. “There are a lot of Republicans not happy with Trump and there are a lot of Democrats not happy with Clinton, who would vote for them grudgingly.”
Trump has occasionally returned to gun control in the general election campaign. In August at a North Carolina rally, Trump said Clinton “wants to abolish — essentially abolish — the Second Amendment.” Then he set off a firestorm of criticism by those who claimed he advocated assassination when he added: “By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Helmut Norpoth, a political scientist at Stony Brook University, said he expects Trump will resume promoting a top GOP primary issue: protecting gun owners’ rights under the Second Amendment.
But while such occasional comments in the general election will satisfy his base, he also could avoid a backlash and tap into broader support by crafting the position around a principle of leaving the Constitution untouched, Norpoth said.
Norpoth also said “trigger events” such as another mass shooting or a terrorist attack will bring those issues to the fore immediately.
As for Clinton, she will resume her calls to stop Republicans from dismantling abortion rights under the Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court, the political scientists said. Clinton has Trump’s videotaped comment from when he was courting the evangelical vote during the GOP primaries that women who have abortions should face “some form of punishment,” a statement he later tried to retract.
“He’d like to back away from that if he could,” Norpoth said of the advantage for Clinton. “That’s a winning number.”
The political scientists said global warming — which Trump disputes while Clinton demands an urgent response — which drew little debate among like-minded foes in the parties’ primaries, will resurface as a defining division between Clinton and Trump.
“Every vote counts,” said Meena Bose, director of the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. “In the debates, moderators will pick the topics, but the candidates can adjust those.”
She expects some of top issues covered during the primaries — terrorism, the role of the United States in the world, immigration, the economy, and law and order — to continue through the final 10 weeks of the general campaign, but with far more detail now that Trump and Clinton are facing off one-on-one.
“These are going to be highly substantive debates,” she said. “I think it will be a discussion of the kind that is steeped in specific policy, with underlying messages of leadership qualifications.”
Other topics such as trade agreements that were part of Republican and Democratic primaries are resurfacing, but with a twist. Trump’s surprise trip to Mexico on Aug. 31 was aimed at underscoring his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he said has hurt U.S. workers, as well as his promise to end illegal immigration from Mexico.
Clinton, the former secretary of state, called that trip an amateurish attempt at diplomacy. After appearing conciliatory while facing Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump returned to Arizona that night, where he again promised to make Mexico pay for the wall and to crack down on illegal immigration.
“For people who are just tuning in, there’s Trump looking like a regular candidate,” said Nelson of American University. “Then, seven hours later, he’s all over the map.”
These issues that were tackled in the primaries will now be presented in the context of whether a candidate has the character and temperament to be president and take action, the researchers said.
Some primary issues such as campaign finance reform, however, don’t appeal as much to a wider general election electorate and have so far seen little debate. Other issues that attracted little attention during primary season — such as how to address the growing national debt — have drawn even less in the general election so far. Still other issues from the primaries are quagmires the candidates would rather avoid or are seen as too dense for most voters — such as Social Security reform – despite their urgency.
“If nothing is done, benefits are going to be cut by about 25 percent in the year 2034,” said Erik Kriss of AARP, the powerful lobby for older Americans. “AARP is asking the presidential candidates to give us as much detail as possible as to how they would address Social Security for the 21st century. . . . The more time that goes by, the more limited are the options to avoid cutting benefits.”