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Banks have a big stake in the presidential race

Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco.

With the financial crisis still fresh in voters' minds, big Wall Street banks served as an easy target in the 2012 presidential election.

But as outrage has cooled so has the tough talk from the bevy of hopefuls looking to win the 2016 race. Bigger hot-button issues like immigration, wealth inequality and guns have taken the focus, and the vitriol toward Wall Street, while not gone altogether, is at least a little quieter.

"In terms of big-ticket issues, yes, the bull's-eye is gone," Dick Bove, the widely followed vice president of equity research at Rafferty Capital Markets, said in an interview. "In terms of are we going to continue to fight around the edges, that's going to continue for the next three to five years. ... There are still people whose jobs are dependent on going after the banks."

The next president for sure will have plenty to contemplate regarding the $15.5 trillion U.S. banking industry. There are multiple bills making their way through Congress — most notably the reforms spearheaded by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., that seek to change the way institutions are declared systemically important, along with a bevy of other provisions.

And, of course, there is the Dodd-Frank law which continues to be implemented and has brought fundamental changes to banking, particularly at the big firms that helped create the financial crisis firestorm.

But on the campaign trail, there's little talk about reform, at least on the GOP side. While Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is calling for a breakup of the big banks, not a single one of the Republicans who will take the stage at the CNBC debate Oct. 28 even responded to interview requests for this report.

Gone, too, are the drum-thumping protests of Occupy Wall Street, which camped out a few blocks away from the New York Stock Exchange back in 2011 and 2012. In their place has come a nuanced world where some candidates may talk tough on big banks to score political points, but the heavy lifting for regulating the institutions is largely in the past.

Indeed, perceptions of the industry on the whole are changing.

For the first time since the financial crisis began in 2007, Americans have a net positive view of the banking industry, according to a Gallup poll taken in September.

Read MoreClinton calls for breaking up too-big-to-fail banks

So with much of Dodd-Frank in the rearview mirror and the lust for Wall Street's blood toned down considerably, most analysts expect there won't be any more major changes ahead. That includes any significant repeals or amendments to the sweeping Dodd-Frank legislation.

However, banks still have plenty to lose from the wrong outcome in 2016.

"What I'll call the guts of Dodd-Frank ... that will survive the election. You can throw the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in there as well," said Brian Gardner, senior vice president of Washington research at financial services firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. "I don't think a Republican president is going to want to spend a lot of political capital on making major modifications or repealing a law that has seemed to go after Wall Street. The politics are just bad."

Despite predictions from some in the industry that Dodd-Frank and the general air of hostility in Washington would hammer banks, it's done nothing of the sort.

Banks made a record $43 billion profit in the second quarter of 2015 after pulling in $39.8 billion in the first quarter, according to the FDIC. That came on top of the combined $630 billion in profits after the last negative year in 2009. Moreover, the number of unprofitable institutions fell to 406 in 2014, the lowest amount going back at least to 1984.

Failures have slowed to a trickle as well; there were 140 in 2009 and 157 in 2010. But in 2014 there were just 18, and only eight have gone down so far in 2015.

Banks stocks have done well, too. The KBW Bank Index is up about 265 percent from the March 2009 low point, outperforming the S&P 500, which has gained just over 200 percent during the same period.

But now that conditions have stabilized, some lawmakers want a bigger piece of the banking pie.

Read More Bove: Don't fear the Fed for bank stocks

Each year, the Federal Reserve pays a 6 percent dividend to banks that, while not amounting to much relative to their total profits, is sparking a huge amount of furor from industry lobbyists. Washington legislators want to slash the dividend to 1.5 percent and take the difference, about $17 billion, for use in highway projects. The measure would pertain to the more than 550 banks with more than $1 billion in assets.

Generally speaking, Republicans are considered to be friendlier to banks, but it is the GOP that is pushing the proposal hardest.

"The precedent which the Republicans are attempting to establish is that the revenues of banks are available to the government for whatever purposes the government wants," Bove said. "If anyone wants to argue the Republicans are essentially trying to be easier to deal with on banks than the Democrats, there's no evidence of it."

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But there are some threats from the Democratic side.

The two leading contenders, front-running Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have thrown some scorn the banks' way, though it largely pertains to trading and other risky activities.

Shelby's bill, meanwhile, would make raise the level of assets from $50 billion to $500 billion as the dividing line for banks considered systemically important financial institutions, or SIFIs. It also would seek to open the door on credit unions, establish an insurance advisory board at the Fed and implement several changes to mortgage finance.

"When you look at the Shelby bill, you can see there's not a lot of heavy changes to Dodd-Frank," KBW's Gardner said. "If a Democrat is elected president, I think think any changes to Dodd-Frank are totally off the table."