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What to Expect From Clinton and Trump During Tonight’s Presidential Debate

October 9, 2016, 4:00 PM UTC
Photos by Spencer Platt & Melina Mara/The Washington Post—Getty Images

Tonight Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are expected to square off in what’s poised to be another highly anticipated U.S. presidential debate. The first debate certainly covered a range of topics, but for the most part, the focus was more about the candidate’s personalities than policy. With voters at Sunday’s second debate asking the questions in a town-hall style format, the candidates will have a more difficult time avoiding the issues voters want to hear about. So, what issues do voters care about this election?

Polls show the economy, domestic security, and health care all loom large in the minds of voters. These major issues have been virtually absent from the presidential debates so far, including this week’s vice presidential debate. Trump and Clinton can use these issues to accomplish two goals. First, the candidates can bolster their voting base. Second, they can make a pitch to undecided voters. Both candidates will try to attract working-class voters and women. The former is part of Trump’s base of support, but Clinton needs to garner more support from these voters on Sunday. Women, however, are core Clinton supporters, but if Trump wants to win in November he needs to do better with female voters.

Here is how each candidate might use the economy, domestic security, and health care to win over working-class voters and women.

The U.S. economy

Strengthening the American economy has been a central part of Trump’s campaign. He will likely talk about job creation, revising America’s foreign trade agreements, and reforming the tax code, but he also has an opportunity to use economic issues to broaden his appeal to women beyond the paid maternity leave plan he has proposed. Trump has been vague about his policy proposals, and it’s unlikely he will offer much detail about his plans in Sunday’s debate. He will probably be more focused on steering the discussions away from topics such as the last time he paid taxes—an issue that may rankle some voters.

By contrast, Clinton is more likely to go into detail about her economic policies, which she has done throughout her campaign. However, she will need to leverage her chance to broaden her appeal to working-class voters. Cutting taxes, raising the minimum wage, and creating more jobs are all issues that affect the lives of working-class voters. These topics could give Clinton an opportunity to recover from her infamous “basket of deplorables” moment.

Keeping America Secure and Safe

Domestic security encompasses a broad scope of issues including terrorist attacks in the U.S., immigration, and the ramifications of the refugee crisis in Syria. Trump may try to use gender dynamics to his advantage, as he has in the past by saying that Hillary Clinton does not have “a presidential look.” Trump can score points with anxious and worried voters by presenting himself as the candidate who can keep America safe, but he will need to be careful to focus on touting his own credentials and avoid attacking Clinton for being a woman—an approach that some voters, especially women, may see as sexist.

Clinton’s challenge on security issues will be to overcome the perception that women cannot be strong leaders. Expect Clinton to fall back on her times as Secretary of State where she tackled the challenges of a complex world. Of course, Clinton has weaknesses on security issues—and the controversy over those pesky emails are likely to come up during the debate.

Obamacare? Trump-care? Clinton-care?

Health care is still a big issue for many voters. Trump’s central message has been to repeal the Affordable Care Act. This is where Trump may continue to juxtapose Clinton with President Obama. This strategy taps into voter dissatisfaction with the Obama administration, and allows Trump to show he is a fresh voice in the political arena.

For Clinton, healthcare is where she can, and most likely, will talk most powerfully about women’s issues. Reproductive rights, funding for women’s health research, and providing access to health services are issues that disproportionately affect women. Clinton can use these issues to cast herself as the candidate who will represent women in the White House, both literally and figuratively.

Unique about Sunday’s debate is that it gives voters an opportunity to see the candidate’s interact more directly with each other and with the voters. But, don’t expect the debate to definitively change anyone’s mind. Much of the empirical research shows that debates rarely change the course of an election. And, there is still a third debate before Election Day.

Nichole Bauer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama.