One in three Mainers say that their own economic situation is worse now than it was two years ago, and only 18 percent say it’s better, according to a poll commissioned recently by the Portland Press Herald.
Those numbers vary considerably based on certain demographic factors.
Only 12 percent of the respondents in households with income of $50,000 a year or less said their economic situation is better, while 41 percent said it’s worse. Among those without college degrees, 44 percent said things are worse.
When asked why, those who were polled said a lack of jobs and continued cost-of-living increases are the major reasons.
Gary McGowan, 52, of Bangor said his biggest concern is jobs. Not long ago, he worked as an internal auditor for a major oil company. That job got outsourced, he said. Now he sells cars.
“I think there should be more opportunities for people like me,” he said. “I have a degree; I have experience. But the business climate really isn’t creating opportunities.”
Suna Waken, 23, of Portland works at a cafe on Marginal Way in Portland but wants to be a teacher. To do that, she has to go back to school, and she’s wrestling with the decision on whether that investment is worth it.
“I really wanted to establish myself by 30; I’m not sure that’s going to happen,” she said. “I just feel like it should be a little easier.”
As bad as things still are for many Mainers, 52 percent of those polled support increased public spending for education and infrastructure, even if that means paying more taxes. And 70 percent said things could be improved if wealthy Americans were taxed at a higher rate.
Jobs and the economy are the yardsticks by which President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will be measured between now and Election Day, and the class warfare narrative is expected to heat up as both candidates fight for empathetic control of the struggling middle class.
Last week, Obama sought to use the tax issue to his advantage by again calling for an end to the Bush-era tax cuts on the wealthy. Romney opposes any tax increases.
Although Obama leads Romney among Maine voters, according to the recent poll by Critical Insights, neither candidate has an edge when it comes to who voters think would be more successful in creating jobs.
“I think voters will pay attention to things like the price of gas and job numbers as the race goes on,” said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine-Farmington. “Pocketbook issues resonate most.”
Asked the question: “When I think about the future of Maine, the one thing I am most concerned about is … ,” 30 percent of those polled cited unemployment or a lack of jobs as their top concern. Twenty-one percent said it’s the economy. No other answer topped 5 percent.
It’s no surprise that jobs and the economy are the most important issues for voters, but their feelings vary depending on income, education, gender and political leanings.
Diane York, 65, of Woodstock is a retired nurse and an independent-leaning Democrat. She said she’s not too worried about the economy, but that’s probably “because I’m financially OK.”
Jim Cannon, 43, a freelance graphic designer from Windham, said he thinks the economy is better but still has room for improvement. He keeps getting jobs, which is a good sign, but companies are more likely to hire someone like him on a contract basis than employ an in-house designer, which means profit margins are still thin.
Registered Republicans or self-identified conservatives, those in the 55-64 age bracket, and women were all more likely to say their economic situation is worse, according to the poll.
Beverly Schweitzer, 56, of Richmond fits into all three categories. She’s out of work because of a disability, but she’s worried less for herself and more for many of her struggling family members.
Schweitzer said she’s hopeful that things will rebound but, unlike some other Republicans, she doesn’t blame President Obama.
“The president just doesn’t have control over some of these things,” she said.
York agreed and said it’s unfair to think that a president, or any high-ranking politician, “can snap their fingers and fix the economy.”
Still, Obama’s support in Maine is softest among those who consider their personal situation to be worse. And 77 percent of Romney’s supporters said the economy and jobs have a major impact on their vote, compared with only 60 percent of Obama’s supporters.
Those who said things are better now than two years ago said the main reason is that they got a new job or a better job.
Alex Hebert, 21, of Biddeford will be a senior at the University of New England in the fall. This summer, he’s laying brick. He said the sluggish economy hasn’t hit him as hard as it has his parents, but he hasn’t had to look for a steady job yet.
“Come talk to me in a year,” he said.
There’s no shortage of opinions on how to improve the economy. Tackling taxes and government spending usually top the list.
More than half of those surveyed said the country should spend more on education and infrastructure, even if that means raising taxes.
The breakdown was predictable — 61 percent of Republicans favored lowering taxes and cutting spending, while 72 percent of Democrats favored spending more and raising taxes. Unenrolled voters — the largest bloc in Maine — were more likely to favor more spending and taxes. Households with income greater than $100,000 were less likely to favor raising spending and taxes.
Melcher, at UMaine-Farmington, said people tend to like spending cuts in the abstract, but like them less when talk turns to particulars.
There was less disparity in the poll about who should be taxed more. Seventy percent were in favor of changing the federal tax structure to ask wealthy Americans to pay more. That number is in line with national polling numbers.
“For top earners, there is no reason you shouldn’t pay more,” said Lucas Butler, 22, a Democrat and a recent college graduate from Caribou who is still looking for a job.
McGowan, the car salesman and registered Republican, cautioned against increasing taxes, even on the rich.
“They are the ones creating jobs,” he said. “More taxes are going to hurt businesses and force them to cut jobs, not add them.” Schweitzer, of Richmond, fell somewhere in the middle.
“I think we need to raise some taxes and cut some spending,” she said. “It needs to be both. Right now, it seems like nothing is happening.”
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: