News Column

The 2012 Political Mantra Sounds Familiar: It's All About the Economy. But whose Economy?

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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."

Two-thirds of the 99 Percenters predict the economy will improve over the next four years only if Obama wins. Among the Downbeats, 84% predict the economy will improve only if Romney wins. Among the just-getting-by Hard-Pressed, a Democratic-leaning group, 69% don't expect the economy to get better no matter who wins.

Evenly matched but not the same

Americans see the president and the former Massachusetts governor each as having significant strengths in handling the economy -- but different ones.

In the overall national poll, Obama was favored over Romney by double-digits on three fronts: handling living standards for the poor, the concentration of wealth and the cost of a college education. Romney was favored over Obama by double-digits on three fronts: dealing with the deficit and debt, the financial performance of savings and retirement investments, and economic growth.

Obama had a smaller, 7 percentage-point advantage on handling the cost of health care, and Romney had a narrow 3-point edge on managing government regulation. They were within a point or two of one another on dealing with the issues of unemployment, home values and foreclosures.

The nationwide poll of 1,012 adults, taken May 10-13, had a margin of error of +/- 4 points.

That scorecard makes them look evenly matched. (Romney does have an advantage on somewhat higher-ranking concerns than Obama does, including the No. 1 deficit issue.) But their contrasting profiles seem designed to fit different situations. That's one reason the state of the economy this year is likely to have such a strong impact on the election outcome, and not only because it reflects on Obama's tenure.

If the economy is in crisis, Romney would be preferred to handle such macro problems as boosting growth and protecting investments.

If a stable recovery is underway, Obama would be favored on managing more personal financial issues, such as the costs of college and health care.

"The best thing about President Obama is he knows what it's like to be poor and worried, and not like Romney, who was born with a silver spoon," says Laura Marantette, 52, of Gooding, Idaho. She falls in the Democratic-leaning Upbeats, a group that is generally optimistic about the economy's future. It includes the highest proportion of blacks, women and moderates.

Mike Rogers, 31, a technology consultant from Bellevue, Ky., voted for Obama four years ago and credits him with doing "some good things," but he is inclined to support Romney. He falls in the Republican-leaning Thriving group, the largest category and the one with the highest education and income levels and the most young people.

"I do think he will do a better job," Rogers says of Romney, noting his experience as a governor and as head of a "jobs-incubator company," the Bain Capital private-equity firm. "I think he has a better grasp of the business principles and the economic principles."

Rogers' top economic issue: "The rate at which our GDP is growing," which is to say, the Gross Domestic Product, the basic measure of the economy's health, is not growing fast enough.

Just 'staying afloat'

The economic pain of the recession wasn't shared equally, presumably one reason why expectations of what's ahead are so different.

Most of the Hard-Pressed say they are worse off financially than they were a year ago -- that helps explain their moniker -- while most of the 99 Percenters say they are better off. Consider this divide: Every single member of the Thriving group (37% of the population) is confident that his or her standard of living will improve over the next decade. Among the Hard-Pressed and the Downbeats (a total of 24% of the population), not a single person expresses confidence about that.

Brian Wing, 53, a millwright from Sumner, Mich., says the country is just "staying afloat" and its future is in peril. He is one of the Democratic-leaning Hard-Pressed, the oldest group (60% of them are 55 and older) and the one with the most political independents.

"I deal in an industrial line of work," he says. "We rebuild stuff for manufacturing equipment, for manufacturing companies. I believe those companies are sitting on their hands right now. They don't know which way (the economy) is going to go. Everything right now is kind of dead in the water."

Issues other than the economy matter as well, of course. Wing is inclined to vote for Obama, but he notes his dismay over the president's endorsement of same-sex marriage this month. "The gay-marriage thing wasn't acceptable to me," he says, saying Obama was "pushed into a corner" when Vice President Biden declared his support on NBC's Meet the Press.

Isaac Gutierrez, 21, of Zillah, Wash., a college student and member of the National Guard, is in the Republican-leaning Thriving group but plans to vote for Obama because Romney has threatened to veto the DREAM Act. The proposal to provide a path to legal status for young people who were brought to the USA illegally as children is an important issue to him.

For almost everyone, though, one aspect or another of the economy is the driving force of the campaign.

The deficit and debt was the issue most often cited as extremely important in the USA TODAY Poll, just above the cost of health care and unemployment. Following, in order: the cost of college, the performance of savings and retirement investments, economic growth, the housing crisis and living standards of the poor.

At the bottom of the list of 10 issues were two with partisan appeal: the concentration of wealth among a few Americans (cited by many Democrats) and government regulation (mentioned by many Republicans).

The state of the American dream

Amid a fragile recovery, Americans are more optimistic about the economy than they were during the last presidential election, which came during a meltdown in the financial sector. Most predict things will be better in a year and are confident they will have enough money to retire comfortably. Seven of 10 expect their standard of living to improve over the next decade.

However, there are persistent concerns that the American dream -- the aspiration that has defined the USA from its founding -- is at risk.

Six in 10 are dissatisfied with the opportunity for the next generation of Americans to live better than their parents. (That's still a bit better than it was when the question was asked in 1992 and 1994.) They are split, 50%-48%, on whether they're satisfied with the opportunity for a poor person to get ahead by working hard.

"I worry about whether that still applies," Stewart, 62, the retired teacher from Indiana and a member of the Downbeats group, says of the American dream. "I'm hopeful. I try to be optimistic about it. But when you see the news and with all the political talk, well" Her voice trails off.

Turner, 40, the oil-field worker from Hebbronville, Texas, and a member of the Thriving group, is more confident.

"I do, I really do" believe the American dream lives, he says. His daughter, Mariah, is 15 and son Dawson is 12. "I've really pushed them toward education, more so than me. I don't want to see them having to work out in the sun like I did. I want them to have a heads-up." They still can, he says.