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Election could come down to ONE issue

It's an accepted fact that unless America is ensconced in some kind of shooting war or a major scandal, the economy is always the top issue in any election. Well, the truth is, the economy is not a winning campaign issue anymore for either party.

The latest Gallup Poll of Republicans and Democrats shows that the economy wasn't the top issue of concern for either group.

If this election comes down to one issue, it's probably going to be national security. It's a clear and easy-to-package message that can be a winning single issue campaign in America for the first time since 2004.



A fighter of the Islamic State stands guard near the city of Baiji, north of Baghdad June 19, 2014.
Reuters
A fighter of the Islamic State stands guard near the city of Baiji, north of Baghdad June 19, 2014.

Don't get me wrong, I still believe the political issues most Americans primarily care about are a combination of job creation, wages, and general economic growth. It's just that translating those concerns to the ballot box has become difficult for both candidates and voters alike.

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The biggest reason for that is that analyzing the economy and economic policies is hard, very hard. While most Americans agree the economy isn't strong enough, that's where the agreement ends. Ask three voters, and you're likely to get three different answers about what should be done, who's to blame for the stagnation, and what political party or candidate would be the best economic leaders.

A confused and splintered electorate is a candidate's worst nightmare. Politicians like wedge issues that divide us clearly along gender, age, racial, or class lines. And right now, the economy is cutting across all those demographics in a gerrymandered way that no political consultant can confidently navigate.

This was astonishingly clear in the 2012 election.

Neither Barack Obama not Mitt Romney polled very well on the economy. In fact, President Obama's poll numbers on his ability to handle the economy were way down from where they were in 2008.

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But he still won the election despite the fact that all the experts told us that the economy was the No. 1 issue.

Post-election studies show that the complex issues like the economy didn't sway the key voters in 2012. The real deciding factor was that most voters just liked and connected with President Obama more than they did with Mitt Romney. It was a popularity contest.

What does this tell us for the midterm elections and the 2016 race for the White House?

Simplicity is King.

One issue can swing the next two elections, but it has to be a lot less complex than the economy.

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Right now, the Democrats are trying to strip out one aspect of that complex economic picture in hopes of simplifying what they believe is a winning issue. Instead of talking about jobs and economic growth, they're focusing on raising the minimum wage and attacking corporations for trying to avoid taxes.

Both of those issues certainly pass the simplicity test but they fail to resonate with enough voters to swing an election, especially independent voters. That's because as disenchanted as many Americans are with their economic lot in life, not many are willing to join the "Occupy" crowd and get into a blame game that fingers their fellow non-politician Americans. And while most Americans favor a minimum-wage increase, key swing voters aren't minimum wage workers and they don't expect much of a personal boost from that. These issues will help the Democrats solidify their base voters, but they won't move the needle.

The Republican campaign messages are in a similar pickle. The promise to repeal or at least drastically reform Obamacare is relatively simple, but once forced to get into the specifics of an alternative plan, things get murky again. The GOP does have alternative plans to the Affordable Care Act, but they're a lot harder for even the most savvy voter to understand and get behind.

Other Republicans are trying to make the growing number of scandals in the Obama administration, from the V.A. to the IRS, a winning issue. Punishing wrongdoers in government is a tried and true strategy for the party out of power. And there's good evidence that the tactic, combined with anti-Obamacare sentiment, will be enough for the GOP to win back the Senate and hold the House this November.

But President Obama will not be a candidate in 2016, and to win back the ultimate prize of the White House the Republicans will need to capture another simple and clear single issue.

And that brings us to our national and personal security.

Perhaps focusing on security right now isn't enough to win an election, but if the next two years are filled with more headlines about ISIS, the refugee crisis at our southern border, threats to our allies and interests in the Middle East, and military and cyber threats from Russia and China, you can bet a candidate or a party that strongly promises to improve America's security can win big.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Street Signs." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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