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Nebraskans go into Tuesday's election unhappy with the country's general direction — but less unhappy than they were more than a month ago.
A solid 58 percent of Nebraskans in The World-Herald Poll conducted Oct. 23 through 25 agreed that the nation had “pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track.”
Just 36 percent agreed that “things in this country are generally going in the right direction.”
That 22-point spread between the “right direction” and “wrong track” is larger than the gap seen in national polls on the same question. Still, it's not as wide as the 34-point gap in a World-Herald Poll five weeks earlier.
The latest results reflect continued uncertainty about the national economy. They also reflect Nebraska's Republican tilt in voter registration, according to political scientists and economists.
Republicans and Democrats in Nebraska differ sharply on the country's direction, the poll showed. A whopping 83 percent of Republicans see the country as being on the wrong track, compared with 25 percent for Democrats and 51 percent for independents.
Meanwhile, just 12 percent of Republicans think the nation is moving in the right direction, while 68 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of independents do.
“My gut feeling is that people are really following their party identification,” said Joseph Blankenau, a professor of politics at Wayne State College. “It's pretty obvious and striking that if you're a Republican, your world view is encapsulated in what's going wrong. And the Democrats are looking at what's going right.”
Blankenau said it's similar to the different spins that greeted last week's national jobs numbers. Democrats focused on the 171,000 jobs added in October; Republicans emphasized the increase in the unemployment rate, from 7.8 percent to 7.9 percent.
Blankenau said that when the economic news is ambiguous — boosting hopes one day and raising concerns the next — people try to make sense of it by turning to what they know: their political party, the news media they trust, the way they view the world.
The “right direction/wrong track” sentiment leads some voters to support a particular candidate, he said.
But Blankenau said the cause-effect relationship sometimes works the opposite way: People who already support President Barack Obama may be glad he's in charge in a troubled economy and thus hold a more favorable view of the nation's direction; conversely, those who already back GOP nominee Mitt Romney have a negative view of how things are going because they disagree with Obama.
In fact, the latest World-Herald Poll found that 90 percent of Romney supporters thought the nation was on the wrong track, while 77 percent of Obama supporters thought the country was moving in the right direction.
Eric Thompson, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln economist who directs the Bureau of Business Research, said the national economic news has been more positive lately. But he said it wouldn't be surprising for people to feel there hasn't been enough improvement.
“It's natural to be unsatisfied with the pace of the economic recovery,” Thompson said. “At the same time, the recession was very severe and partly based on problems in the financial sector, and therefore a slower economic recovery may have been anticipated.”
Ann Mari May, also a UNL economics professor, said it's difficult to interpret the standard poll question about the country's direction since it doesn't specify whether people are happy or unhappy about the economy, foreign policy or other issues.
Since Nebraska's economy is stronger than most other parts of the United States, May said, Nebraskans might be expected to have a more positive outlook than voters elsewhere.
Instead, the reverse is true. On average, 54.7 percent of voters in recent national polls say the country is on the wrong track, according to the Real Clear Politics website, compared with 58 percent in The World-Herald Poll.
The average gap between wrong track and right direction on the national polls is 14.7 points, compared to Nebraska's 22-point spread.
It's not clear whether the generally negative view will tilt the presidential race to Romney. The Washington Post noted last week that then-Presidents Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004 won re-election despite the same “wrong track” result — 55 percent — as Obama now faces in pre-election polls by the Washington Post-ABC News.
But the Post also said Obama's job-approval rating is lower than Clinton's rating in 1996, and his supporters are less enthusiastic than Bush's were in 2004.
The World-Herald survey of 800 registered voters was conducted by Wiese Research Associates of Omaha. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
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