In a healthy democracy votes are based on character and informed policy choices. The balance between the two shifts with the mood of the time—in a recession, for example, policy choices among proposed solutions to the recession may dominate; in other times, absent an issue viewed as urgent, voters look for a leader to inspire them. In looking at policy, the issues most important to voters are viewed in the context of how they view the world around them. Thus, a voter who considers climate change the most important 2020 issue may change her mind if she loses her job. Similarly, the outbreak of war, or a credible threat of war, will prompt many voters to make “defense” their most important issue.
The subjectivity of issues, makes any list of “top issues,” well, subjective. Such lists’ usefulness to voters depends on the credibility and strength of the author’s presentation. With this caveat in mind, here is a short list of what I view as the most prominent issues in 2020:
The Economy. Most voters vote their pocketbook, whether they are rich or poor. For the former, it’s tax policy, for the latter jobs and wages. Depending on how the economy is doing a little over a year from now, this issue will be of greater or smaller prominence. Economic issues may prove tricky for some of the Democratic contenders in 2020—do you say the economy isn’t working when the majority of voters say it is?
Integrity. Even Republicans are becoming weary of the scandals. Voters of both parties seek someone they trust. A fine line needs to be walked on this issue. Anything that sounds like an all-out, even unfair, focus on Trump will turn off some voters. An optimal performance on this issue involves defining integrity, establishing why it should be a priority, and explaining why you have it and others don’t.
Health Care. Always the top issue for those who don’t have access to it and need it. For others, a sense of moral responsibility drives their interest. Clearly, not everyone has that sense of responsibility. I’ll be listening carefully. I want everyone who needs health care to have it. I also want to avoid the negatives of a single payer system—such as long waits for medical procedures not deemed by the government to be urgent.
The Environment. Without air to breathe or water to drink, arguing any other issue becomes difficult. Climate change is, for most of us, real. Unfortunately, absent a category 6 storm threatening St. Michaels, climate change is also something of an abstract problem. This results in some voters questioning the need for action now. That is unfortunate. Any candidate fumbling this issue will lose my support. Any candidate demonstrating true leadership on this issue will earn my admiration.
Defense. Like it or not, the world is becoming a more dangerous place. If current trends continue, some sort of “hot” clash between US and someone else’s military is all but inevitable. If this happens, voters not currently worried about the size of the defense budget might change their minds. For Democrats, as one friend put it, they need to call for a strong military without “sounding like a Republican.”
Criminal Justice reform. For many of us, it has become clear that the criminal justice policy of the last several decades has been unfair if not overtly racist. Hundreds of thousands of people are in jail as a result of argued bias in the system. Obama started reforms that are far from finished. Like health care, this issue enjoys greater prominence for those who have experienced the criminal justice system first-hand or through a family member. For others, the issue represents a wrong in need of righting. Any candidate not talking about this issue is in trouble with me.
Civil Rights. This term means different things to different people, but what it really means is providing full rights to citizens who, for whatever inappropriate reason, have been denied them. It’s the top issue for many in the LGBTQ community and other groups that have had to fight for equality. For many other voters, awareness of past efforts that resulted in the winning of civil rights once denied their forebears creates sympathy or this issue. Credit Trump with raising this issue to the priority it is currently enjoying. I’m with those who fear civil rights could erode if the wrong candidate is elected in 2020.
Abortion. Any list of the top issues would be deficient without including this recent hot button. President Trump, his SCOTUS selections, and a pro-life community that senses an opportunity to reverse Roe v. Wade have raised this issue to the highest level of priority it’s enjoyed for years. Expect this issue to trump all others for many voters in the fall of 2020, and not just women voters.
There are, of course, dozens of other issues that could be included on this list. Last week I was told by a friend that “Space Policy” was his top priority. Really. Trade is another issue that could, perhaps should, be on my list. Thus, if your top issue isn’t on this list, I hope you’ll forgive me. Please let me know what I missed.
It is also likely that the list of top issues will shift in coming months, not just as a result of current events but also as a result of the strength of various candidates in the debates and on the campaign trail. Stay tuned.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. He is a former counsel to the House Committee on Education and Labor. For more than 30 years he advised clients on federal education and social service policy. He is the former chairman of the National College Access Network (NCAN), a group promoting success in higher education among underrepresented groups, and KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a national leader in strategic foresight and education innovation. He is an advocate for the environment, education reform, civic public debate, and good government.