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The Big Issues of the 2016 Election: Where Trump and Clinton Stand (with Lesson Plan)

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Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominees (Wikipedia)

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump share the dubious distinction of being among the least popular presidential nominees in recent history.

They don't share much else, though.

The 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have vastly different worldviews, with often dramatically opposing visions of the kind of nation America should be and the type of government it should have.

Click on issues in the grid below to learn more about what's at stake in this election and the contrasting positions of the two candidates.


Big Issues of the 2016 Election









Higher Education












Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons (Wikipedia)

Gun Control

The number of U.S. gun deaths has fallen considerably since peaking in the mid-1990s. But it still remains far higher than in any other wealthy nation in the world, as does the rate of gun ownership. And while mass shootings only make up a small percentage of total U.S. gun deaths, they occur with alarming frequency.

The issue resurfaced in June, when a lone gunman wielding a semi-automatic rifle and a handgun singlehandedly killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. The incident marked the deadliest mass shooting in American history, reigniting a fierce national debate over gun violence and gun control.

In the aftermath, Democratic leaders staged a day-long sit-in on the house floor, hoping to push legislation to broaden background checks and prevent people on the government’s “no-fly list” from purchasing firearms. Republican congressional leaders, however, denounced the action, and effectively blocked a vote on the issue.

Despite the stalemate in congress, there’s strong public support for gun control measures. In a recent CNN poll 92 percent of respondents said they supported expanded background checks, and 85 percent want the “no-fly” purchasing ban. Nevertheless, the political influence of gun rights groups, like the National Rifle Association, remains huge, effectively squashing most efforts to strengthen gun laws.

In the wake of the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, President Obama went around Congress and announced a series of executive actions to marginally expand background checks and crack down on illegal online gun sales.

Sources: CNN/ORC poll (survey conducted June, 2016) and UNODC & Small Arms Survey


Hillary Clinton

Clinton is pushing for what she calls "common sense" reforms.
Her plan includes a ban on assault weapons, stricter background checks for firearm purchases and a crackdown on illegal gun traffickers. At a June campaign event in Chicago, she declared gun control a “civil rights issue” and attacked the gun lobby for preventing legislative action.

Clinton has received some push-back from Democrats, including former-rival Bernie Sanders, for her proposal to make gun makers and sellers liable for weapons that end up being used in crimes.


Donald Trump

Trump calls gun bans “a total failure.” He’s opposed to any expansion of background checks and wants concealed carry permits to be allowed all 50 states. He has also pledged to “un-sign” President Obama's executive actions on gun control and eliminate gun-free zones in schools and on military bases. On his website, Trump states that an important way to fight crime is to “empower law-abiding gun owners to defend themselves.” He further claims that America’s failed mental health system, not gun legislation, is the real culprit behind the mass shooting dilemma.

After receiving an endorsement from the National Rifle Association (NRA) in May, Trump called Clinton “the most anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment candidate to ever run for office.” And in early August, at a campaign rally in North Carolina, Trump made a controversial remark about his opponent that was widely interpreted as inciting violence: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know.”

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Photo Credit: Flickr/Charlotte Cooper
Photo Credit: Flickr/Charlotte Cooper


It’s been more than 40 years since the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision that protects a woman’s right to have an abortion. But Americans still remain deeply divided on the issue, particularly along religious and regional lines. In recent years, various conservative states in the South and Midwest have enacted laws aimed at restricting access to abortion facilities and services. However, in a major ruling in June, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that placed steep restrictions on abortion providers. Reaching a 5-3 decision, the Court found the state’s laws placed an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions, violating their constitutional rights.

Sources: Pew Research Center (survey conducted March, 2016) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Abortion Surveillance Reports. *Based on legally induced abortions reported to the CDC.
Sources: Pew Research Center (survey conducted March, 2016) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Abortion Surveillance Reports. *Based on legally induced abortions reported to the CDC.


Hillary Clinton

Throughout her career, Clinton has consistently described herself as “pro-choice.” She’s fought efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, and opposed laws aimed at restricting access to safe, legal abortions. She praised the recent Supreme Court decision on Texas, and has pledged to continue working to protect Roe v Wade.

In a Democratic debate in March, Clinton said she would consider some restrictions on late-term abortions, “so long as there is an exception for the life and health of the mother.”

Clinton's pick for Vice President, Tim Kaine, says he’s personally opposed to abortion, but will work to uphold Roe v Wade. Kaine has been criticized in the past by pro-choice groups for signing "anti-choice" bills into law as Governor of Virginia – however, since joining the Senate in 2012, he has consistently voted in line with abortion-rights advocates and the Democratic Party platform.


Donald Trump

Prior to running for office, Trump described himself as, “very pro-choice.” However, as a candidate, he’s shifted his position to one more in line with the Republican Party’s anti-abortion stance.

After catching heat for suggesting that women should receive “some sort of punishment" for having an abortion, his campaign back-peddled, saying that Trump believes the person performing the procedure should be held accountable, not the woman.

Trump is pledging to change abortion laws by appointing pro-life judges, particularly to the Supreme Court. He also advocates allowing states to protect the rights of the unborn. He does, however, stray from the Republican platform in arguing that abortion laws should contain exceptions for rape and incest, when the life of the mother is at risk.

Trump's running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, is a vocal anti-abortion advocate, recently signing into law broad restrictions for doctors and women who seek abortions in Indiana, which already has restrictive abortion laws.

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Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons


Immigration policy is one of the most divisive issues in this election. The United States has long been a top destination for foreigners, attracting roughly 20 percent of the world’s immigrant population. The more than 41 million immigrants who live here make up roughly 13 percent of the nation’s total population. About 11.3 million of them are undocumented: living here without legal status.

Although most Americans believe it's unrealistic to deport every undocumented immigrant, many support some tighter immigration restrictions. Only about a third, though, are in favor of building a U.S.-Mexican border wall.

A 2016 Pew Research poll found that 75 percent of Americans say undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements should be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally, and a majority (59 percent) say immigrants strengthen the country through their hard work and talent.

In June, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision overturning President Obama's executive actions that would have protected nearly five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. The decision leaves federal immigration reform unresolved, an issue the next president will likely address.

Sources: Pew Research Center (survey conducted March, 2016 ) and Migration Policy Institute (based on 1970-2000 decennial Census data)


Hillary Clinton

Clinton supported President Obama's executive actions to provide deportation relief to eligible undocumented immigrants. She’s vowed to go beyond Obama's short-term measures and fight for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. She’s also proposed reducing barriers to naturalization for green card holders, closing private immigration detention centers and creating the first national Office of Immigrant Affairs to coordinate programs across federal agencies, as well as state and local governments.

Clinton also supports a five-fold increase -- from 10,000 to 65,000 -- in the number of Syrian refugees allowed to enter the United States. However, she maintains that the U.S. would have to, “be vigilant in screening and vetting refugees from Syria” - a multi-step process that currently takes 18 to 24 months to complete. She’s consistently criticized Trump's plan to ban Muslim immigration as discriminatory and counterproductive.


Donald Trump

Trump has made tough immigration policy one of the cornerstones of his campaign. From the beginning of his campaign, he's promised to deport all 11.3 million undocumented immigrants, consistently accusing them of stealing jobs from U.S. citizens, straining public resources and jeopardizing national security. A key part of his plan is building a U.S.-Mexico border wall, and making Mexico foot the estimated $10 billion bill. At a press conference announcing his run for president last year, Trump infamously said: “When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best ... They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” His plans also include tripling the number of immigration enforcement officers and ending the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship.

Although Trump had hinted at the possibility of softening his hard-line stance on removing all undocumented immigrants -- and even arranged a surprise meeting in late August with Mexico's president -- the candidate recently outlined a 10-point immigration plan, reiterating his intention to crack down on illegal immigration, build a wall and even set new historically low caps on legal immigration. Although he shelved his initial pledge to hunt down and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants, he didn't say he was taking the idea off the table.

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Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons


The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. About 2.3 million people are currently behind bars, or roughly 716 for every 100,000 people. The huge prison population is the result of decades of harsh sentencing policies and steep penalties for non-violent drug offenses. Because of the system’s astronomical costs and the stark racial disparities of those impacted, prison reform is actually one of the few issues in which Republicans and Democrats have found some common ground. Although strategies differ, both parties agree that it’s necessary to end mass incarceration, and reduce the severity of sentences for low-level, non-violent offenders.

In the wake of recent high-profile police shootings and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, both parties have also been forced to confront issues on policing and race.

Sources: Prison Policy Initiative: "Public Opinion on Sentencing & Corrections Policy in America" (March 2012) and World Prison Brief - Institute for Criminal Policy Research (2013)


Hillary Clinton

Clinton has worked hard to try to distance herself from the criminal justice policies implemented during her husband's administration. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law a sweeping crime bill that some blame for the drastic spike in the nation’s prison population. Hillary Clinton has pledged to reverse many of those policies, vowing to end mass incarceration and close private prisons. She also plans to reform mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders and redirect federal enforcement resources away from the War on Drugs and towards combating violent crime.

She supports police body cameras and says she would provide federal matching funds to allow state and local police departments to implement emerging technology.

During the primary elections, Clinton met with members of the Black Lives Matter movement, and following a series of high-profile police shootings in early July, tweeted: “Alton Sterling Matters. Philando Castile Matters. Black Lives Matter.”


Donald Trump

Trump hasn’t released any formal positions on criminal justice and has yet to clearly outline how he’d specifically address the issue. He’s repeatedly promised to be tough on crime and "restore law and order." He also claims that police are often “mistreated and misunderstood,” and says that the nation’s “racial tensions have gotten worse, not better.” Recently, Trump has noted the level of crime and poverty in many inner-city communities, claiming that unlike Democratic leaders, he would make conditions better. In a speech in August he appealed to black voters, asking: "What the hell do you have to lose?"

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Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons


The economy is officially rebounding from the depths of the 2008 recession, and employment rates continue to rise. However, with the continuing loss of manufacturing jobs, wages have remained stagnant for millions of Americans, a factor that’s contributed to a shrinking middle class and growing gap between rich and poor. Wealth inequality in the U.S. is now at near record highs, with about 90 percent of wealth owned by the top .1 percent of families, according to recent economic research. Such frustrations have become a key focus in this year’s presidential race.

In response to public pressure, a number of states have recently raised their minimum wages, even as the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009.

Trade agreements have also emerged as a hot-button issue this election. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal among the Pacific Rim countries, ruffled feathers at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. The agreement, backed by President Obama, would lower tariffs on imports and exports for the nations involved. However, critics, including some prominent Republicans and Democrats, argue the deal would hurt U.S. workers and send more jobs overseas.

Sources: Gallup Poll Series (survey conducted April, 2015) and United States Department of Labor (2012)


Hillary Clinton

Since becoming the Democratic nominee, Clinton has adopted some of Bernie Sanders’ more left-leaning positions on income inequality, and made the issue a more central part of her campaign. She’s pledged to "make the economy work for everyone, not just those at the top" through an ambitious plan that includes job creation, slashing corporate loopholes and raising the minimum wage (although not as high as the $15 per hour target set in the Democratic Party platform).

Clinton's jobs plan, which calls for "the boldest investment ... since Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System," is mainly focused on the nation's transportation, technology and energy sectors. To fund her plan, Clinton proposes raising taxes on the rich, including a minimum 30 percent tax rate for those making more than $1 million a year, and a 4 percent surcharge for incomes over $5 million.

The TPP became a deeply divisive issue leading up to the Democratic National Convention in July. Clinton's former rival, Bernie Sanders, led a failed campaign to strike support for the TPP from the Democratic Party platform. Clinton supported the trade deal as a senator, but has reversed her stance amid criticism from Sanders supporters and labor leaders.


Donald Trump

Trump unveiled his "America First" economic plan in early August, in his first comprehensive policy address on the issue. The proposal includes ways to simplify the tax code, increase trade enforcement with China and strike down federal agency regulations – which he describes as “the anchor dragging us down.”

Trump’s initial tax reform plan released last September proposed broad relief for the middle class and closing loophole for the rich. However, in response to criticism that the plan would greatly expand the federal deficit, his campaign has released a revised three-tier tax plan. More in line with the Republican Party platform, the current proposal would cut top income tax rates from nearly 40 percent to 33 percent.

Trump has consistently appealed to big business, pledging to slash the top tax rate on corporations by more than half. Additionally, he wants to abolish the estate tax (which Republicans derisively call the “Death Tax) and make inheritance money tax-free.

During the primaries, Trump advocated strongly against raising the federal minimum wage, but has since shifted his position. More recently, he has suggested it should be increased to "at least $10," but thinks it’s an issue best left to the states, not the federal government, to decide.

Trump is also strongly oppose to the TPP, calling it “another disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country.”

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Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons


In reaction to the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and recent attacks at home and abroad, global terrorism has reemerged as a major issue in this election. A majority of Americans continue to approve of U.S. military campaigns against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, according to a recent Pew Research poll, although there’s wide disagreement on whether to send more American ground troops.

In the same poll, however, about 70 percent of respondents said the next president should focus more on domestic policy than foreign policy.

Sources: Pew Research poll (survey conducted April, 2016) and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute


Hillary Clinton

Clinton’s foreign policy positions are more hawkish than those of President Obama, who she served under as Secretary of State until 2012. As a presidential candidate, she’s advocated for greater U.S. involvement overseas, and argues that the current administration should have acted more proactively to stop the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Clinton is in favor of increasing pressure against ISIS by intensifying air and ground military campaigns and by launching an “intelligence surge” to discredit terrorist ideologies and thwart online recruitment tactics. As a senator, Clinton backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and also supported the 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan.


Donald Trump

In a June campaign speech, Trump described his foreign policy plan as replacing “chaos with peace,” and has adopted rhetoric that’s much more isolationist than that of his opponent. He argues that America needs to focus on defending its own border rather than borders of others countries, and has consistently claimed that he was strongly opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (although a PolitiFact analysis of Trump's previous statements on Iraq contradicts this claim).

Trump says that although “war and aggression will not be my first instinct,” the U.S. should continue to invest heavily in the military to protect its status as a world superpower.

Trump has repeatedly vowed to “crush ISIS.” However, he’s remained intentionally vague on the specifics, claiming that “we must as a nation be more unpredictable.” At a recent campaign rally, Trump called for upping attacks against terrorists, sending more of them to U.S. military prisons like Guantanamo and expanding the use of forceful interrogation methods.

He’s been outspoken in his opposition to President Obama‘s defense and foreign policy strategies, arguing that they’ve been far too lenient with known enemies, hurt U.S. relations with allies and made America weaker. “Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster,” he said in an April speech. “No vision, no purpose, no direction, no strategy.”

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Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons


Obama was unable to push through any domestic climate change legislation during his presidency, but his administration has continued to try and make the United States a global leader in curbing carbon emissions – even as it remains one of the world’s largest carbon emitter. At the United Nations climate change conference in Paris last December, the administration pledged a 32 percent reduction in the nation’s carbon emissions by 2030 (from 2005 levels) – a proposal that faces staunch opposition from Republican leaders in Congress and is also being challenged in federal court.

Although renewable energy use is growing, America remains deeply reliant on fossil fuels. Coal, natural gas and oil still comprise about two-thirds of our total energy generation.

Proposals to increase alternative energy production and reduce emissions are often perceived as a threat to the economy and jobs, particularly in regions where fossil fuel production remains the backbone of the local economy.

Despite these concerns, a strong majority of Americans (71 percent, according to a 2015 poll) agree that “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment.”

Sources: Pew Research Report (January, 2015) and U.S. Energy Information Administration (2014)


Hillary Clinton

Clinton has an ambitious plan to combat climate change, which she calls, “an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.”

She proposes to make the U.S. a “clean energy superpower” by implementing President Obama's carbon reduction plan, cutting energy waste and oil consumption by a third and promoting the growth of renewables. She’s also pledged to oversee the installation of 500 million solar panels by the end of her first term.

The centerpiece of Clinton’s plan is the $60 billion “Clean Energy Challenge” - a proposed federal grant program to help states and local communities adopt clean energy policies. Much of the plan is geared towards impacting low-income communities.


Donald Trump

Despite broad scientific consensus, Trump disputes the notion that climate change is caused by human activity. He’s called global warming a “hoax” and a “pseudoscience” invented by America’s global competitors to stifle U.S. economic growth. As spelled out in his “America First Energy Plan,” he’s pledged to renegotiate President Obama’s carbon reduction strategy, revive coal mining and other carbon-intensive industries and abolish what he calls the “totalitarian” Environmental Protection Agency.

A recent investigation however, revealed that the candidate has had his own personal climate change concerns: he recently applied for permission to build a wall around one of his private golf courses in Ireland in order to protect it from "global warming and its effects,” according to the permit application.

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Although the Affordable Care Act – or Obamacare as it’s known – was signed into law in 2010 and survived two major Supreme Court challenges, it’s still among the most hotly contested partisan issues in American politics. Since it went into effect in 2014, some seven million more Americans now have some form of health coverage, according to Centers for Disease Control estimates. The fundamental disagreement, though, still rests on whether the government can or should require its citizens to have health insurance.

Sources: Pew Research Report (January, 2015) and Kaiser Family Foundation (2012)


Hillary Clinton

Clinton has pledged to defend and build on Obamacare. Her health care proposal focus primarily on lowering out-of-pocket expenses, reducing the cost of prescription drugs and expanding Medicaid for lower-income people. She’s also in support of tax credits for people purchasing health insurance on government exchanges, and has guaranteed that families will spend no more than 8.5 percent of their incomes on insurance premiums.


Donald Trump

Like much of the Republican establishment, Trump is staunchly opposed to Obamacare, and pledges to overturn it. On his campaign site, he calls the law, “an incredible economic burden” that’s resulted in “less competition and fewer choices.” He aims to restore “free market principles” by allowing people to deduct health insurance payments from their tax returns, and by removing barriers to entry for legal drug providers to lower prescription costs. Trump also claims that providing healthcare to undocumented immigrants costs $11 billion annually and that mass deportation would,“relieve healthcare cost pressure on state and local governments.”

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Photo Credit: Flickr/John Walker


Amid the skyrocketing cost of private and public universities, student debt has reached historic highs. More Americans than ever before are attending college. That’s generally considered a good thing, but about 40 million of them – up from 29 million in 2008 - are currently paying off student loans. On average, borrowers are carrying $29,000 in loans (up from $23,000 in 2008). That amounts to roughly $1.2 trillion in student debt, three times what it was 10 years ago. According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 7 million Americans in the past year defaulted (failed to make a payment for over a year) on their federal student loans.

Sources: Gallup Poll (April, 2015) and College Board (2015)


Hillary Clinton

Since winning the Democratic nomination, Clinton has adopted some of the more progressive measures proposed by her former rival Bernie Sanders. Although she did not originally, Clinton is now calling to eliminate tuition at in-state public colleges and universities for families with incomes below $125,000. The plan would include federal tuition grants for states that agree to provide matching funds. While generally praised by young voters and education experts, some have criticized the plan for being light on details and unrealistic in terms of being able to get all states on board to fund it.

Other components of Mrs. Clinton's plan include a three-month moratorium on federal student loan repayment and the restoration of year-round Pell Grant funding, a federal program for students with financial need.


Donald Trump


Trump has said very little regarding college affordability. He’s acknowledged the rising cost of higher education and said that he wants to help people struggling with student loan debt, but has offered little in the way of specific proposals. During an April town hall event, he also suggested eliminating the Department of Education, which is the agency responsible for federal aid and Pell Grants. In late July, Trump announced that his campaign would likely release its education plan by early September.

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