With prices rising, home values falling and Wall Street in turmoil, Minnesotans are jittery about the state of the economy and convinced the federal government isn't doing enough to help them out.
A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll finds that fully seven in 10 respondents think government needs to do more to fix the economy; 63 percent believe federal authorities should step in to keep people in their homes when the possibility of foreclosure looms.
More than 40 percent said they are very or somewhat concerned about paying their mortgage or rent, and about a third of the respondents expressed concern about losing their jobs or taking a pay cut.
The poll of 1,201 Minnesota adults was conducted between Sept. 10 and Sept. 12. The findings, coming just weeks after the nation's unemployment rate topped 6 percent and in the midst of a heated and historic presidential campaign, suggest the economy could be a defining issue for many voters.
Terri Jasper, a teacher in Nisswa, said she feels the country is going in the wrong direction economically.
"There's health care, education [expenses]. I'm very concerned about that," said Jasper, 60. "I'm coming up on retirement and I've lost so much money [in retirement accounts] that there's no way."
Jasper, a supporter of Hillary Clinton's failed presidential candidacy, said she listens diligently to both Sens. John McCain, the Republican nominee, and Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, and is leaning toward Obama.
Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier said the latest poll results illustrate how vital the economy has become in the 2008 presidential election.
"It's 1992 all over again -- 'It's the economy, stupid,'" Schier said, referring to the campaign slogan of then-candidate Bill Clinton.
With a few exceptions, retirement savings weigh hard on the minds of Minnesotans, with 63 percent of those polled voicing concern about not having enough on hand when they want to retire.
"I don't find this particularly surprising," said John Boyd, a finance professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "Who's not worried about the economy now?"
Those worries have already affected the behavior of Minnesotans. On the question of vacation plans, 45 percent said they cut back or canceled leisure getaways.
Two-thirds of those polled said rising fuel and food costs prompted them to cut back spending "in other areas," about the same number who said they did so in mid-May when the same question was asked in a Minnesota Poll.
"It's pretty clear that the level of economic worry is pretty high," Schier said.
The dilemma for the candidates, he said, is developing an economic message that voters can understand.
"The problem with [using] the economy in a campaign is that it's extremely complicated," Schier said. "How do you literally get this out in 25 words or less?"
DFLers and independents in Minnesota carry a gloomier outlook on the nation's economy than Republicans, although few in any party think the federal government is doing enough.
In the current poll, 42 percent of the female respondents said that they are worse off than a year ago, compared with 32 percent of the men, who took the poll. And 39 percent of the women said they were worried about job losses, compared with 31 percent of the men.
By party affiliation, half of DFLers said they were worse off today compared with 21 percent of the Republicans and 38 percent of voters who identified themselves as independent. DFLers also were more concerned about losing their jobs (43 percent) than Republicans (27 percent) or independents (35 percent).
About a third of the DFLers and independents said they have taken on more debt in response to rising fuel and food prices, compared with 16 percent of Republican respondents. Similarly, more DFLers and independents said they have changed vacation plans (52 and 48 percent, respectively) than did Republicans (36 percent).
Given the heated presidential campaign, it comes as no surprise that 51 percent of Republicans said the government needs to do more to fix the economy in contrast to the 83 percent of DFLers and 72 percent of independents.
In follow-up interviews with some of the poll respondents, they expressed across-the-board concern about the effect of high gasoline and food prices on their pocketbooks but displayed creativity in dealing with costs.
Laura Nyberg, of Bloomington, said she "consolidates" her shopping trips to hit her grocery store, drug store and shopping center in one fell swoop. "I've filled up just two tanks of gas this year," said Nyberg, who runs a packaging and crating company with her husband.
Nyberg said she actually feels better off financially than she was a year ago. "We prepare for things. We're business people and we know that every 10 years things are going to happen. We don't charge more than we can afford."
Richard Arvig, of Forest Lake, said he and his wife watch their pennies closely, particularly since he has been out of work since heart surgery in July. "Our overall cost of living has gone up so much with fuel prices and food prices," Arvig said. "We don't go out as much as we used to."
Jerome Boucher, a retired sawmill operator who lives in the countryside near Foley, said he and his wife feel their economic status hasn't changed in the past year. "We live a simple lifestyle," he said.
David Phelps • 612-673-7269