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Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Bring Different Levels of Policy Detail to 2016 Debate

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are running very different campaigns in terms of policy proposals in the 2016 presidential race.
Image: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on July 30, 2016 in Youngstown, Pennsylvania and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Aug. 31, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.Justin Sullivan/Ralph Freso / Getty Images

The Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump debate on Monday night won't just be an argument over different policy visions.

It will also be a contest about whether policy details are important at all.

It will feature one super-wonky candidate who sounds like she could run the Federal Reserve and her opponent, who often speaks like a pundit analyzing the campaign instead of a man who could soon lead the world's most influential nation.

Hillary Clinton is offering detailed, complicated plans on nearly every issue, from creating debt-free college for middle-class American families to helping children and adults who suffer from autism. In contrast, Donald Trump has released far fewer detailed policy proposals and speaks more in generalities about his vision for governing.

Clinton’s website includes plans for 39 issues. Trump’s website refers to proposals on nine issues. The Republican nominee has said little in detail about the criminal justice system, Social Security, Medicare, same-sex marriage or abortion.

Related: How to Watch Monday's Presidential Debate

As first reported by the Washington Post, a group of conservatives who were helping craft some of Trump’s policy ideas quit last month because the campaign was not paying them. In contrast, Clinton's team of more than a dozen policy advisers at the campaign's Brooklyn headquarters and 30 working groups on various issues was recently featured in a long piece by the Huffington Post.

At the recent Commander-in-Chief forum, Clinton made a very specific promise: she would not deploy U.S. “ground troops” in Iraq or Syria to fight ISIS. Trump ducked questions about his plans against ISIS, arguing, “If I win, I don’t wanna broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.”

Trump’s campaign is trying to close this gap. Over the last few weeks, Trump put out a plan for the federal government to spend $20 billion on a school voucher program — allowing students to attend private schools if they want — and called for six weeks of paid leave for new mothers, breaking with his party's traditional opposition to mandatory leave programs.

And on one issue, the real estate mogul has been more detailed than perhaps any recent presidential nominee from either party in recent memory: Trump in May released a list of the people whom he would consider for a Supreme Court nomination. He added to that list of names on Friday.

Related: Debate Preparation Shows Gulf Between Campaigns

In part, Clinton proposing more than Trump simply reflects the differences between the two political parties. In most presidential elections, the Democratic presidential nominee has more plans and ideas than the GOP candidate, because Democrats believe that the government in general, and specifically the federal government, should intervene in more issues than Republicans do.

It is unlikely that even a more traditional Republican candidate than Trump would have plans to reduce sexual assaults on college campuses or expand early voting hours in states, as Clinton does. Republicans are more inclined to defer to states on election rules and colleges and local officials on college campus issues.

But Trump specifically has been more dismissive of policy proposals than most candidates. In January, right before the Iowa caucuses, Trump had released fewer plans than any of his Republican rivals. Back then, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had 32 policies on his website, compared to Trump's five. And Trump's comments in interviews at times suggest that he has limited knowledge of issues like how the Federal Reserve works and is not necessarily trying to learn more.

“She’s got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day. Nothing’s ever going to happen. It’s just a waste of paper,” Trump told Time Magazine in June, referring to Clinton.

He added, “My voters don’t care and the public doesn’t care. They know you’re going to do a good job once you’re there.”

Trump, even more than most candidates, is campaigning on values as much as policy. Mexican government officials have said repeatedly that they will never pay for the border wall Trump is proposing. But Trump’s supporters loudly cheer at his events when the real estate mogul speaks of Mexico funding the border wall, because it echoes their concerns about immigration and the growing Latino population in the country, even if the wall is unlikely to be built.

Similarly, Trump has at times vacillated on exactly how his plan to limit or ban Muslims from entering the country would work. But the Muslim remarks and the wall fit into a campaign strategy of appealing to white, working-class voters who are wary of what they view as "political correctness."

Mike Konczal, a fellow at the liberal-leaning Roosevelt Institute, argues Trump's campaign is "full of policy," just not in a traditional way.

"For most voters, policy is less about solutions and more about framing problems," Konczal wrote in a recent piece on Medium.

Konczal, who strongly opposes the Republican the nominee, added, "Trump is fantastic at setting up problems. Trump is very clear on how he sees the problems, be they foreign trade, immigration from Muslim countries and Mexico, law and order, 'political correctness,' and so forth. While his solutions, where they exist, are unstable, the way he has set up problems has been remarkably consistent."

In contrast, Clinton’s detailed policy ideas fit into one of her core campaign themes: That she is ready to be president and her opponent is not. Polls suggest many voters do not view Clinton as trustworthy or like her, but consider the former secretary of state prepared to be commander-in-chief.

"She’s got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day. Nothing’s ever going to happen. It’s just a waste of paper."

But the policy gap isn’t giving Clinton a huge advantage in the race. One challenge Clinton faces is that while her ideas are detailed, they are in most cases not very innovative. Clinton and Barack Obama have similar policy views and also share a kind of pragmatism, looking for ideas that have at least some chance of being approved by Congress or taken up by governors and mayors in states.

So in many cases, Clinton is proposing essentially a continuation of what the U.S. government is already doing. Her proposals are less dramatic than those of Trump or Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s rival during the primaries who proposed tuition-free college for all Americans.

"These are all defensible tweaks to the American welfare state, but they do not represent a new vision for the nation," Politico's Michael Grunwald wrote recently, describing Clinton's policy ideas. "That’s because Clinton mostly embraces Obama’s vision for the nation. In fact, one reason her agenda can seem squinched is that Obama accomplished so much of his own agenda."

The biggest challenge for Clinton is that most voters choose their candidate based on more general measures of conservatism or liberalism, not details. Trump, despite his breaks from GOP orthodoxy on some issues, is the candidate proposing large tax cuts, limiting regulations on businesses and repealing Obamacare. So the vast majority of Republicans and conservative-leaning voters are backing him.