Diana Stewart, a retired teacher from Paris, Ind., is worried about jobs "for my children and my grandchildren and my neighbors' kids." John Turner, who works in the oil fields of Texas, is focused on the rising federal debt because "you don't borrow more than you can pay." The top concern for Valerie Field of New London, Ohio, is the cost of health care, especially since her husband's job as a butcher doesn't provide insurance coverage.
Americans have different and sometimes conflicting priorities on the economy and clashing expectations about what's ahead. The uneven impact of the Great Recession and the uncertainty of the recovery have shaped those divergent views and with them the campaign appeals of President Obama and likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
A USA TODAY analysis sorts Americans into five categories of people with similar perspectives about what's wrong and who can fix it, using findings from a nationwide USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken this month. The demographic groups and their attitudes underscore how sharply divided we are as a nation -- and how competitive the 2012 race is poised to be.
John Schuck, 39, a corrections officer from Buffalo, falls into the most conservative and reliably Republican group. We've dubbed them the Downbeats, a name based on the group's defining characteristic -- in this case, its gloomy view of the nation's situation. He plans to vote for Romney, as do eight in 10 Downbeats, dismissing Obama as "a mouthpiece for government."
Schuck rates the economy as poor and fears it's about to get worse, and he sees the constellation of economic problems as too connected to choose one as most important. "I can't really say health care is worse than jobs; I mean, it's all intertwined," says Schuck, who was called in the poll. His bottom line: "It's the working, middle-class people who are getting shunned and pushed aside."
The Downbeats and a second group that leans overwhelmingly to Romney, the Thriving, make up 51% of those surveyed. The other three categories -- the 99 Percenters, the Hard-Pressed and the Upbeats -- make up 49% of the total. They lean almost as decisively to Obama.
Though the economic statistic most often spotlighted is the nation's unemployment rate, none of the five groups ranks jobs as the most pressing economic concern.
For the two Romney-leaning groups, the top issue is the federal deficit and debt.
For the three Obama-leaning groups, the Hard-Pressed cite the cost of health care, the Upbeats the value of savings and retirement accounts, and the 99 Percenters the concentration of too much wealth in the hands of too few -- the cause that propelled the Occupy Wall Street movement.
That helps explain why Romney talks about spending and the deficit at every event. On the campaign trail last week, he used as a backdrop a "debt clock" that tracks the second-by-second increase in the national debt. And it helps explain why Obama doesn't cite balancing the budget as a priority, instead promising to protect programs that aid students, seniors and others.
"Obama is fair," says Carolyne Silver, 58, of Rocky Mount, N.C. She is one of the 99 Percenters, the most liberal and Democratic of the groups, named for the rallying cry of Occupy Wall Street whose goals they embrace. The president tries "to spread things" around to benefit everyone, she says, "but the way Romney speaks, he wants the rich to stay rich and the poor to stay poor."
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