FREEDOM, N.H. — Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz strode into the general store in this aptly named New England village last week and, with the swagger and zeal of a warrior, rattled off the problems facing the country:
Federal regulations are a jackboot strangling everyone. Obamacare is a disaster, and taxes are too high. Constitutional rights are being violated left and right. Sanctuary cities are endangering citizens. The terrorists are beating us. Russia and China are laughing at us. Pulling America back from the abyss requires daily prayer and a political awakening.
When the Democratic candidates gathered at a forum Monday night in Des Moines, they identified an entirely different set of problems: Wages are stagnant, and workers have been left behind by the economic recovery; guns are rampant; the big banks are greedy and reckless; the police can no longer be trusted; and climate change threatens environmental catastrophe.
Presidential elections have long featured major differences between Democrats and Republicans, but the fault lines have generally been over how to fix the problems facing the country. What makes the 2016 campaign unique is that the two parties don’t even agree on the problems.
The conversations underway on the two parties’ debate stages and at their candidates’ rallies and town hall meetings are strikingly different. This fall’s general election is likely to turn on which set of issues voters consider more urgent.
“Ultimately, it’s going to be which of these visions — regardless of what the solutions are, but what the priorities are, what the issue set is — will appeal to independent voters,” said Jeff Weaver, campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont. “Which vision are independents going to accept as the legitimate vision, even if they don’t agree with all of the solutions?”
The dynamic also could have significant consequences for whoever is sworn in as president.
A Democratic president such as Sanders or Hillary Clinton, for instance, would be heavily engaged in reining in Wall Street, toughening gun laws and combating climate change.
But a Republican president probably would not see those as areas of concern, much less emphasis. That president would probably focus on undoing President Obama’s biggest achievements and recalibrating U.S. foreign policy to be more assertive toward the Islamic State.
One of the few areas of agreement between the two parties is drug abuse — specifically the heroin epidemic tearing through the country. “The drug thing is killing Republicans and Democrats together,” former president Bill Clinton said at a campaign rally in Concord, N.H.
Joel Benenson, the pollster on Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns and now Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist, attributed the divide on issues to the constituencies that each party is trying to reach. Whereas Republicans aggressively court evangelical Christians and other grass-roots conservatives, Democrats cater to the interests of minorities, women and working-class people.
“The Democratic Party generally has been focused on the lives of working Americans and the fundamental issues that they’re still dealing with: How do I get a good-paying job? How do I get my kids into college? How do I get my pay up? How do I get some of my costs down?” Benenson said. “The Republican Party seems to be locked in some kind of echo chamber.”
But Republicans say their top issues are the priorities of most Americans — and they point to the groundswell of enthusiasm for their campaigns as proof.
“There is an awakening that’s sweeping this country,” Cruz said repeatedly as he visited nearly two dozen New Hampshire towns last week on a bus tour.
The last two candidates’ debates — both in Charleston, S.C., and clocking in at about two hours each — offered a vivid illustration of the gulf. At the Jan. 14 GOP debate, there were 15 mentions of the word “immigration,” but three days later at the Democratic debate, it came up three times.
China was invoked 43 times in the GOP debate but only three times at the Democratic one. No Republican said the word “climate,” yet it was uttered seven times on the Democratic stage. And “ISIS” — an acronym for the Islamic State — was said 46 times by the Republicans, compared with 20 times by the Democrats.
After seeing the Democrats spar, Matt Moore, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, walked away stunned.
“No candidate mentioned national security over the first hour of the debate,” Moore said. “We believe national security is the most important issue facing the American people. That was quite perplexing.”
For a split-screen contrast, just attend one of Chris Christie’s town hall meetings. The Republican governor of New Jersey often goes on for more than an hour talking almost exclusively about the danger of “radical jihadist terrorism” and warning that the next target could be anywhere.
“I lose three times as many calories when I listen to the Republicans talk than when I listen to Democrats, because it gets you all revved up,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said. “You almost feel like: ‘Oh, my God, the world’s going to end next week. I better do something.’ ”
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) lamented that issues she and many of her urban constituents consider critical — including criminal-justice reform and voting rights — are largely ignored by the leading Republican candidates.
“It’s a mystery to me that at a time that is so critical to our country’s future, virtually half the country would be satisfied with that type of superficial and too-often childish debate, when we have some real serious things going on in our country,” Rawlings-Blake said.
It’s not only the issues that the candidates prioritize, but also the kind of language they use during their campaigns.
At the Democratic debate, no candidate said the words “God,” “Christian,” “Bible” or “scripture,” and the three — Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley — do not commonly use such words in their speeches.
By contrast, the Republican candidates tend to wear their faith on their sleeves, in part to win over conservative Christian voters in Iowa and other states.
Donald Trump brings his childhood Bible with him to some campaign rallies and holds it as a prop, although the billionaire mogul drew mockery when he botched a reference to Second Corinthians during a recent speech to students at Liberty University, the Christian college in Virginia founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush often talks about his Catholic faith and carries a rosary on the campaign trail.
And Cruz, whose father is a born-again Christian and travels the country preaching, has taken to quoting scripture in his stump speeches. He cites Second Chronicles 7:14 and urges his supporters to find time every day to pray for the country’s future.
“Just one minute when you wake up in the morning,” Cruz says. “When you’re shaving. When you’re having lunch. When you’re tucking your kids into bed.”