Poll: Voters worried but engaged

WASHINGTON -- Americans are going to the polls more deeply pessimistic than they have been in decades about the country's direction, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, and they are divided over whether a new president will be able to turn things around in the next four years.

Even so, the public remains avidly engaged in the election, including two-thirds who say they are more enthusiastic than usual about voting. A third say they have voted already or will do so before Election Day Tuesday, a 50% increase from 2004.

"This looks to be an election characterized by a thorough and nearly unprecedented rejection of the incumbent party and president, but there's muted expectations about moving forward," says Larry Jacobs of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.

If Democrat Barack Obama holds his current lead and wins, Jacobs says it will be more of a "negative referendum" on the past rather than a "positive mandate" for a future agenda.

In the survey, Obama beats Republican John McCain by 53%-42% among likely voters, the biggest lead since they emerged as the likely nominees in March. While presidential races typically tighten in the final days, the USA TODAY survey shows this one widening.

Democratic congressional candidates have a 15 percentage point lead among registered voters, the widest advantage for either party since 1964.

By some measures, the public is more downbeat now than it has been in the weeks before any other election in modern times. A record low 13% say they're satisfied with the way things are going in the United States. More than half say the economy is in poor shape, the highest in the five elections the question has been asked. A record high 78% predict the economy is getting worse.

President Bush's approval rating, 25%, is the lowest of any modern president just before an election.

Some of the keys to Obama's lead:

• Asked to predict the state of their personal finances four years from now, 48% say they'd be better off under a President Obama; just 27% say that of a President McCain.

• Asked about the nation's security in four years, an equal 37% say the country would be safer under a President Obama or a President McCain.

• Asked about federal income taxes, 48% say their taxes would be higher in four years under Obama; 50% under McCain.

• Asked about health care costs, 42% say they would rise under Obama; 61% say that of McCain.

That means Obama has neutralized the advantage McCain once held on national security and taxes while maintaining a significant advantage on handling the economy and health care.

The poll of 3,050 adults, taken Friday through Sunday, has a margin of error of +/—2 percentage points. Obama's lead among likely voters is identical using the traditional Gallup screen and an alternative screen that includes more new voters.

On Sunday, McCain held his final town hall in New Hampshire, the state that launched his comeback in the primaries this year. "I come to the people of New Hampshire to ask them to let me go on one more mission," he told them.

Obama appeared in Cleveland with legendary rock star Bruce Springsteen. "The last couple of days, I've been just feeling good," he told a crowd estimated at 80,000. "You start thinking that maybe we might be able to win an election on Nov. 4th."