‘We’re on the wrong course’

Julie Murray says life is good. Yet gasoline prices are crimping her grocery budget, she can’t afford a larger house, and she says President Bush is not focused enough on people’s problems at home.

“My husband and I are happy,” said Murray, 46, a homemaker from Montpelier, Miss. “We just wish we could buy more into the American dream.”

Like Murray, most in the U.S. say they are personally happy and feel in control of their lives and finances, according to an extensive Associated Press-Yahoo! News survey on the mood of voters. Beneath the surface, though, personal and political discontent is bubbling.

There is a widespread unease—shared by 77 percent—that the country has meandered off in the wrong direction. Nearly all Democrats and more than six in 10 Republicans think the country has taken the wrong course. And although almost half express interest and hope in the upcoming elections, a third voice frustration—particularly Republicans.

The AP-Yahoo! News survey will track voters’ perspectives during the run-up to next year’s election, interviewing more than 2,000 people repeatedly about their lives and views about the country, candidates and issues. The polling, conducted by Knowledge Networks, will let the AP and Yahoo! track how and why opinions form and change during the campaign.

People are paying attention to the 2008 presidential campaign. Solid majorities think their vote matters and say this wide-open presidential contest is more important than usual.

Stirred in are warning signs for Republican candidates: Democrats seething after nearly seven years under President Bush are happier and more psyched up about this election than Republicans.

More Democrats than Republicans say they are hopeful about the voting, 54 percent to 39 percent, and more of them are interested in it. Republicans are more likely to say the election leaves them frustrated and bored.

“There’s no one out there to vote for,” Rocky Belcher, 43, a Republican and college professor from Vandalia, Ohio, said about the GOP field. “That means a lot of Republicans may not get out there to vote.”

Happy and unhappy people alike say they are likelier to vote for the Democratic nominee, with the unhappy—who are likelier to be lower-income and less educated—giving Democrats a bigger, 2-to-1 margin. When it comes to the candidates battling for those nominations, the two front-runners—Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and former GOP New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani—are faring about equally among the happy and unhappy.

More Democrats than Republicans say the 2008 contest is unusually important, and they are likelier to describe themselves as excited, interested and hopeful. By wider margins than Democrats, Republicans say the election makes them feel frustrated and bored.

Democrats and Republicans differ when defining the key issues. Democrats list the economy and health care followed by Iraq, while Republicans name three equally—terrorism, the economy and Iraq.

Joseph Lyon, a 22-year-old Republican from Houston, is most troubled by a fear the U.S. will leave Iraq too soon and by immigrants who stream into the U.S. but do not learn English.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Lyon, who begins serving with the Marines early next year. “They come here to live and expect us to assimilate to them. It’s our country.”

In Oshkosh, Wis., Jenny Walsh is most concerned about the failure to end the war and what she sees as a growing gap between rich and poor.

“We need change, just something that’s completely different,” said Walsh, 28, a Democrat and convenience store manager. “It’s just slowly going downhill.”

With the limp housing and credit markets dominating recent headlines, financial problems are at the heart of many people’s worries. Though three-quarters say they control their financial situation, most say they are having trouble getting ahead, including a third who say that has become very difficult.

“Something’s gotten out of synch between what we make and what things cost,” said Sandra Dempsey, 47, a child-care provider in Jonesboro, Ga. “Slowly but surely the middle class is becoming the lower class.”

In a measure of the two parties’ traditional strengths with income classes, people saying they are enjoying good financial times said they are slightly likelier to support next year’s Republican presidential candidate over the Democrat. Those saying times are tough are less likely to vote, but back the Democrat by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, though they don’t necessarily blame Republicans for their problems.

“We have illegal immigrants coming in, they work for cheaper and that keeps black folks out of jobs,” said Charlie Burnette, 56, a mechanic from Durham, N.C.

When it comes to the stressed out, they are as likely to vote Democratic or Republican as are those without such tension in their lives. The same is true for people who generally trust others and those who do not.

While two-thirds said they approve of gambling, overwhelming majorities disapproved of heavy drinking, smoking marijuana, and using cable TV or a neighbor’s Internet connection or sharing music or video files without paying. There are scant party differences in most, though Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to approve of marijuana smoking, and young people are far likelier than their elders to assent to each one.

The online survey of 2,230 adults was conducted Nov. 2-12 and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points. The survey included 1,049 Democrats, for whom the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points, and 827 Republicans, for whom the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

This Internet survey uses Knowledge Networks’ online panel, which is nationally representative because people are first contacted using traditional telephone polling methods, and then followed with online interviews. People selected for the study who do not already have Internet access are provided with it for free.

Associated Press news survey specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.