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.
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