Raleigh, N.C. — The sputtering economy is the dominant national issue in voters' minds, but they give a range of responses in a new WRAL News poll as to where the country is headed.
SurveyUSA polled 641 registered voters statewide between Saturday and Monday and found that more than three-quarters cite the economy as the biggest issue facing the U.S. No other issue got more than the 9 percent response given to health care.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
"This points to what the campaigns have been talking about and what the pundits have been talking about – economy, economy, economy," said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh.
The first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney on Wednesday night will focus on domestic issues like the economy.
"I think where the lines are going to be drawn in the debate and heading for the next five weeks is, what are the plans you're going to put out – both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama – to get Americans back to work," McLennan said.
Four years ago, the unemployment rate in North Carolina was at 6.6 percent and rising amid the global economic collapse. Although economists say the nationwide recession ended months ago, the state continues to struggle with a jobless rate close to 10 percent.
"This economy's got a lot of people down right now," said John Agusta, the owner of Music Go Round, a Cary store that buys and resells musical instruments and equipment.
Agusta said this is worst year he's seen in seven years at the store – sales are down as people hold off on buying a drum set or amplifier – so he plans to close it.
"It probably won't really hit me until the last day, when we actually shut the door and lock it up," he said Tuesday. "I'm scared. We're living month to month, our family right now. Every month, I wonder how are we going to pay the mortgage."
Agusta can identify with the 45 percent of people polled who say they are worse off financially than they were four years ago. Twenty-three percent said they are better off than in 2008, while 31 percent said their situation is about the same now as it was then.
Hallot Parson, owner of Escazu Artisan Chocolates in Raleigh, is among those who count himself better off. The chocolatier has grown from six to 11 employees in recent years and is looking for space to expand.
"We've had pretty steady growth, but (in) the last year and a half, it's definitely spiked," Parson said. "We're really optimistic about the future. Making another move is a big financial investment, and we wouldn't do it if we didn't think it was going to pay off."
Forty-four percent of those polled share his optimism, saying they believe North Carolina's economy will get stronger over the next year. Only 9 percent said they think the state economy will slide backward, while 33 percent said it will likely remain about the same.
In a WRAL News poll conducted in March, 34 percent said the economy would be stronger in one year, while 19 percent said it would be weaker.
"We are slightly down in terms of the total number of jobs, and we're not quite back to where we were pre-recession," North Carolina State University economist Mike Walden said, "but I think what people look at is recent history. I think people are most influenced by what's happening very recently."
With Election Day five weeks away, voters don't really trust either party to boost the economy. Forty-six percent said they thought the Democrats would do a better job, while 45 percent said prefer Republicans on economic issues.
"I will be voting for change myself," Agusta said. "You got to do what you got to do right now."