The economy, a topic that has dominated American politics for nearly a decade, is increasingly fading into the background of the presidential race.
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, voters have consistently ranked the economy as one of their top concerns. That trend carried over into polling of the 2016 race.
But in the home stretch of a heated election, discussion of the economy is falling by the wayside.
Of the 25 questions in the first presidential debate between Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE, six were devoted to the economy, including tax policy. The total fell even further in the vice presidential debate, when just two questions out of 19 touched on the economy.
The economy was nearly missing in action during the second presidential debate Sunday night, when just one of 23 questions touched on the economy by covering tax policy.
As a point of comparison, the 2012 town hall debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney covered a wide array of economic issues, including gas prices, the gender pay gap and job outsourcing. Of the 9 questions posed by the audience, two-thirds were related to the economy.
Experts are frustrated by the lack of substantive economic and fiscal talk from the candidates.
“The economy has gotten short shrift in the debates, particularly given that the economy is on the top of most people’s list of concerns,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “Hopefully we can hear more about what the candidates have in mind to lift the economy’s future performance for everyone in the final debate.”
A CBS News/New York Times poll found the economy and jobs to be the top issue for most voters, narrowly edging out national security and terrorism.
But the raucous 2016 campaign has veered sharply away from policy debates, with a steady stream of campaign controversies, fueled in part by Trump’s bombastic style, dominating news coverage.
Sunday’s debate veered even further away from traditional campaign fare, as candidates fielded questions about groping women, deleting emails and Islamophobia.
“The focus is so much on politics, perhaps understandably in this unprecedented kind of election,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “But policy matters. ... It’s really disappointing.”
On the campaign stump, both candidates still hammer hard on pet economic issues. Trump criticizes trade deals, while Clinton is sticking with her vow to raise taxes on the wealthy to help the middle class.
But on the debate stage, the campaign has resembled a reality show, with personal attacks, controversies and rebuttals dominating the discussion.
Trump has fielded at least as many questions during the debates about his refusal to release his tax returns than on his actual tax policy.
And cybersecurity conversations have pivoted around Clinton’s personal email use and Trump’s inclinations toward Russia.
“This is a campaign that’s filled with tantalizing, titillating topics that might be more fun than actuarial balances,” said MacGuineas. “Striking the right balance is a real challenge.”
Some experts argue that it’s hard to tell which candidate benefits from the state of the U.S. economy, which is steadily growing but not at a particularly fast clip.
With income inequality remaining relatively high and economic growth relatively slow, Democrats cannot unequivocally embrace Obama’s tenure.
But with unemployment having fallen to around 5 percent and data showing wages are climbing, Republicans risk overreach by criticizing the economy too harshly.
“This is a very long lasting, mature, but slow economic recovery,” said Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It just isn’t spectacularly good. It’s the kind of thing that makes you think that the economy isn’t the deciding issue.”
Measures of economic confidence reflect that dichotomy. Gallup recorded in September that its Economic Confidence Index stood at negative 10. That’s one of the highest levels since the financial crisis, but still negative overall. The index has only recorded one positive reading since the recession, of 3 back in January 2015.
The tricky politics of the economy were on display during the vice presidential debate.
Democratic VP nominee Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KainePanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B Democrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' MORE endeavored to rattle off the positive data about the economy under Obama, including millions of new jobs and signs of growing wages, while touting Clinton’s plans.
Republican VP nominee Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence says he hopes conservative majority on Supreme Court will restrict abortion access Federal judge to hear case of Proud Boy alleged Jan. 6 rioter seeking release from jail The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit MORE rebutted Kaine aggressively, citing the difference between the statistics and what people are experiencing.
“Honestly, Senator, you can roll out the numbers and the sunny side, but I got to tell you, people in Scranton know different. People in Fort Wayne, Ind., know different,” he said. “I mean, this economy is struggling.”
But for those hoping for a major conversation about the nation’s economic trajectory, there isn’t much hope the final debate will lead to a major shift.
“The political curtain has closed on us,” said Steve Bell, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.