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Eight Issues That Could Shape Politics in 2016

The 2016 presidential election has largely been defined so far by personal attacks and horse race polling. But significant policy differences exist between the candidates, especially Republicans and Democrats. And while those differences will be hashed out on the campaign trail over the next 11 months, some topics are destined to help define the nation's next election.

Here are some of the issues to watch in 2016.

1. The Economy and Jobs

Elections are usually categorized into one of two compartments: the economy or foreign policy.For instance, the 2004 election, just three years after 9/11, was undoubtedly a foreign policy election. In 2008, the election was economic focused as the recession had just begun.

In 2016, it's still unclear if this will be a foreign policy or economic election. Millions of Americans feel left behind as wages have stagnated and the middle class shrinks. But the rise of ISIS and the recent terrorist attacks in the west have revived fears about terrorism.

Federal Reserve to raise interest rates - what it means for you 1:46

For the first time since 2007, respondents in the NBC News/WSJ poll say terrorism, not the economy, is the most important issue to voters.

Republicans and Democrats can't even agree on the importance. While Republicans say terrorism is the most important issue, Democrats still say it's the economy.

2. Terrorism/Foreign Policy

With the rise of ISIS, the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, increased tensions with Russia, a nuclear deal with Iran, the prolonged involvement of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the entrance of U.S. military advisers into the war in Syria, the importance of foreign policy — especially terrorism — is a critical issue for voters.

In the latest NBC News/WSJ poll, 40 percent of respondents say terrorism is most important — more than any other issue — compared to just 21 percent who said so in April.

Image: Geneva Security
An armed policeman patrols on December 12, 2015 at Geneva Airport in Geneva. Two men of Syrian origin were arrested on December 11 in Geneva with traces of explosives in their car, Swiss public television said, as the city remained on high alert due to an increased jihadist threat. RICHARD JUILLIART / AFP - Getty Images

3. Federal deficit and budget

Government spending is a top priority for Republicans. According to Pew Research, nearly eight-in-10 Republicans said in September that the budget is "very important" to their vote. Only six-in-10 Democrats thought it was "very important." This dovetails right into the concerns over the size of government, which Republicans are also more concerned about.

4. Wall Street/Equality

While Republicans are concerned about the size of government, Democratic voters are most concerned about income inequality and the role of Wall Street financial institutions. All three Democratic candidates have unveiled plans to reign in Wall Street and the issue is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' central plank.

5. Health Care

Health care consistently is mentioned as an important for voters but why healthcare is important diverges at political identity. Republicans are more interested in repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act while Democrats are more concerned with expanding access to healthcare. Both parties are concerned about the cost.

6. Immigration

Like health care, the issue of immigration is an issue that continuously comes up on the campaign trail and one that is concerning to the electorate for different reasons (see Rubio v Cruz). Republicans are more likely to want to control immigration and increase border security while Democrats are often more interested in a plan to address the undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

That is evidenced on the campaign trail when Republican candidates have adopted an enforcement and border security approach while Democratic candidates discuss ways for immigrants to assimilate and stay in the U.S.

7. Environment and Global Warming

This is an issue important to Democrats but barely on Republican voters' radar. According to Pew Research, it's the issue that has the biggest split between Republicans and Democrats. While 74 percent of Democrats say it's important, only 37 percent of Republicans do. If the voters of the two parties can't even agree on its importance, it's even more difficult to agree on what to do about it.

On the campaign trail, Republicans talk about the environment in the form of an overzealous Environmental Protection Agency hindering the economy with heavy handed regulation. Democrats promise to remake the American economy and energy sector to be more environmentally friendly and to address climate change.

8. Guns

In the wake of numerous mass shootings, guns is a consistent theme in the political discourse, even so after the San Bernardino attacks. Still the issue is not likely to rise to the same importance of the economy. Republican candidates promise to protect gun ownership with some Republicans, including Donald Trump and Jeb Bush saying that it's going to be difficult to prevent mass shootings. Democratic candidates are vowing more regulation and oversight of guns as a way to prohibit mass shootings.