By EMILY SWANSON and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans are closing out 2014 on an optimistic note, according to a new Associated Press-Times Square Alliance poll. Nearly half predict that 2015 will be a better year for them than 2014 was, while only 1 in 10 think it will be worse. There’s room for improvement: Americans give the year gone by a resounding ‘meh.’

Here’s what Americans thought of 2014:

GAINS AT HOME, SLIPS ABROAD

On a personal level, about a third (34 percent) think 2014 was better than 2013, while 15 percent say 2014 was worse and half see little difference. Slightly fewer feel their year was a step down from the previous one than said so in 2013, when an AP-Times Square poll found 20 percent thought 2013 was worse than 2012.

Americans are slightly more likely than they were a year ago to believe that the current year was better than the last for the United States— 30 percent say so this year, while 25 percent said so in 2013. On the other hand, Americans are more likely than in the 2013 poll to say this year was worse than last for the world as a whole, with 38 percent saying so now after 30 percent said so a year ago.

THREE STORIES SHARE TOP SPOT

Americans are divided on the most important news event of 2014, with the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, protests over the killings of black men including Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police officers, and the Ebola outbreak each named by about 1 in 10 Americans. In a separate Associated Press survey of news directors and editors, the killings of unarmed men by police stand out more clearly as the top story, with 22 of 85 respondents choosing it as the top news, about twice as many as the Islamic State or Ebola stories.

Among the public, Democrats are most likely to name the unrest over Brown and Garner’s deaths as most important (14 percent), while Republicans are most likely to list the rise of the Islamic State (16 percent). Non-whites are more apt to cite the protests around Brown and Garner’s deaths than whites (14 percent among non-whites, 8 percent among whites). The poll was conducted before the shooting deaths of two New York City police officers by a man who threatened retaliation for the police killings of unarmed black men.

Asked separately to rate the importance of 10 key stories, majorities call the expansion of the Islamic State militant group, the Ebola outbreak and the U.S. midterm elections extremely or very important stories. Nearly half rate immigration as that important, while 43 percent say so of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner stories. Only a third think the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the situation between Russia and Ukraine, or the rising number of states with legal same-sex marriage were deeply important stories.

THE YEAR IN POP CULTURE

Few Americans rate this year’s crop of pop culture events as memorable, with one big exception: The death of Robin Williams, and the ensuing discussion of mental health issues. About two-thirds call that a memorable event.

Slightly more say it was more memorable (39 percent) than forgettable (34 percent) that CVS stopped selling cigarettes, and they’re divided equally on whether the ubiquitous ice bucket challenge was memorable (37 percent) or forgettable (37 percent). Thirty percent say the pitching performance of Mo’ne Davis, the first female pitcher to win a Little League World Series game, was memorable, while 41 percent say it was forgettable. Women are more likely than men to see Davis’s performance as memorable, 33 percent of women say so versus 26 percent of men.

Another sports first: Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL, is rated forgettable by about half.

Events rating as forgettable by a majority of Americans include the leak of hacked celebrity photos on Reddit, Ellen DeGeneres’s selfie at the Oscars, Taylor Swift going pop, and the marriages of George and Amal Clooney and Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

RINGING IN THE NEW YEAR

About half of Americans plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve at home this year, while 2 in 10 say they’ll do so at a friend or family member’s home. Fewer than 1 in 10 plan to celebrate at a bar, restaurant or organized event, while about a quarter don’t plan to celebrate at all.

Six in 10 Americans plan to watch the televised New Year’s Eve events in Times Square, including two-thirds of women and over half of men.

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The AP-Times Square Alliance Poll of 1,017 adults was conducted online Dec. 12-14, using a sample drawn from GfK’s probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The poll is a cooperative effort between AP and the organizers of the Times Square New Year’s Eve Celebration, the Times Square Alliance and Countdown Entertainment. The Alliance is a nonprofit group that seeks to promote Times Square, and Countdown Entertainment represents the owners of One Times Square and the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

AP-GfK Poll: Americans go to polls against backdrop of an uneven economy

By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy is lifting job growth and wages but not voters’ spirits.

Americans are choosing a president against a backdrop of slow but steady growth that has managed to restore the economy from the crushing setback of the Great Recession. The government’s October jobs report , released Friday, showed that hiring remains solid, with 161,000 jobs added. The unemployment rate is a low 4.9 percent.

Yet the recovery, the slowest since World War II, has left many Americans feeling left behind, especially those who lack high skills or education or who live outside major population centers.

“The (typical) U.S. household is in a much better spot than they were eight years ago,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “But it hasn’t been a great decade for anyone either. You’ve still got a big chunk of the population who feels this hasn’t worked for them.”

The economy’s weak spots are a top concern for a majority of voters, who say the U.S. economy is in poor shape, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. At the same time, they say their own personal finances are good.

Fifty-three percent of voters say the economy is “poor,” while 46 percent say “good,” according to the poll, conducted Oct. 20-24. Yet 65 percent say their own finances are good, versus 34 percent who rate them poor.

Seventy-three percent of Hillary Clinton supporters say that economy is good; just 16 percent of Donald Trump supporters say so.

And while 60 percent of whites say the economy is poor, 60 percent of nonwhites call it good. Yet whites and nonwhites are about equally likely to say their own personal finances are good.

Consider 73-year-old Charles Muller, who lives outside Trenton, New Jersey, and describes his personal finances as fine. He has a pension from 26 years as a state employee and receives Social Security.

But the broader economy seems fairly weak to Muller. A friend was laid off during the recession, then earned a teaching certificate, and yet still can’t find a full-time teaching job. And a friend’s daughter who recently graduated from college is stuck as an assistant manager of a dollar store.

“I know a lot of people who are struggling and have been unable to find jobs commensurate with their education levels,” Muller said. He is supporting Trump, though he sees the major presidential nominees as “the two worst candidates I’ve ever been given a choice of.”

Here’s a snapshot of the U.S. economy of the eve of the elections:

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SLOWER BUT STILL-SOLID HIRING

The job market has provide itself resilient.

Employers have added an average of 181,000 jobs a month this year. That’s down from last year’s robust 229,000 average. But it’s nearly double the monthly pace needed to lower the unemployment rate over time. The number of people seeking unemployment benefits is near a 40-year low — evidence that layoffs are scarce and most Americans are enjoying strong job security.

Blake Zalcberg, president of OFM, a furniture manufacturer in Raleigh, North Carolina, hopes to add nine employees to his 58-person company, including graphic artists, photographers and sales staff. He expects sales to grow by a third next year:

“It’s a fairly robust furniture market,” he said.

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PAY FINALLY ACCELERATING

With the unemployment rate down to 4.9 percent from the a peak of 10 percent in 2009, businesses have been forced to compete harder for new employees. That’s giving workers more bargaining power when they seek new jobs and finally boosting pay. Average hourly wages grew 2.8 percent in October from a year earlier — the fastest 12-month pace in seven years. Still, historically speaking, that’s still not great. Wages typically rise at about 3.5 percent each year in a healthy economy.

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CAUTIOUS CONSUMERS

Steady hiring and modest pay increases have emboldened more Americans to buy high-cost items like new cars. Auto sales are running near last year’s record pace of more than 17 million vehicles. Yet caution still reigns: Americans’ spending grew just 2.1 percent in the July-August quarter, down from a much healthier 4.3 percent in the previous three months.

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HOUSING HAS NEARLY RECOVERED

The bursting of the last decade’s housing bubble wiped out trillions in household wealth, cost more than 5 million Americans their homes and triggered the Great Recession. Yet the home market has mostly recovered, with purchase prices just 7 percent below their 2006 peaks. Greater home values have helped many families recoup some of their lost wealth. Sales of existing homes have plateaued this year at a nearly healthy level of about 5.4 million.

Doug Duncan, chief economist at Fannie Mae, foresees sales growth slowing slow next year. But more younger Americans are starting to buy homes, suggesting that millennials are tiring of living in apartments — or their parents’ basements— and are starting to move out.

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BUSINESSES HOLDING BACK

Companies with optimistic outlooks typically spend more on computers, machinery and other equipment to keep up with demand. Instead, in recent months the opposite has happened: Business investment in new equipment has fallen for four straight quarters. Some of that pullback occurred because oil drillers slashed spending on steel pipe and other gear in response to sharply lower oil prices. But many companies are also likely holding off on new spending until after the election, when potential economic policy changes will be clearer.

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WEAK WORKER PRODUCTIVITY

The U.S. economy has failed to grow much more efficient. Since the recession began in 2007, productivity — or output per hour of work — has grown at less than one-third the annual pace it did from 2000 through 2007. Rising productivity is vital to raising living standards, because it enables companies to raise pay without raising prices.

Economists blame a range of factors for the slowdown: Americans are starting fewer new companies, which tend to be quicker to adopt new technologies. And weaker investment in roads, ports and other infrastructure has slowed shipping and commuting times.

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MANY STILL LEFT BEHIND

Millions of Americans haven’t benefited from the consistent hiring of the past several years. Middle-income jobs in manufacturing and office work were permanently lost in the recession and have been replaced by lower-paying work in retail and fast food. Many of the unemployed have given up looking for work and are no longer counted as unemployed.

Nicholas Eberstadt, author of a new book, “Men Without Work,” notes that this has been a long-term phenomenon. For every unemployed man ages 25 through 54, three others are neither working nor looking for work. That ratio has doubled since 1990.

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AP Polling Editor Emily Swanson contributed to this report.

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Follow Chris Rugaber on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/ChrisRugaber


AP-GfK Poll: Most believe allegations about Trump and women
WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump’s behavior has long grated on Carolyn Miller, but the allegations he sexually assaulted women was one factor that helped her decide in the last week to cast her ballot for Hillary Clinton.
“I don’t think she’s a bad person. Trump, I think, is a bad person,” the 70-year-old Fort Myers, Florida, resident said. As for Trump’s accusers, Miller added, “I believe them.” And she said her vote for Clinton is “a default.”

Miller is among the more than 7 in 10 Americans who say in a new Associated Press-GfK poll that they believe the women who say the Republican presidential candidate kissed or groped them without their consent, a verdict that may have turned off enough voters, including some Republicans, to add to his challenges in the presidential race.

 Forty-two percent of Republican voters and 35 percent of Trump’s own supporters think the accusations are probably true. Men and women are about equally likely to think so.

While the poll suggests the wave of allegations about Trump’s treatment of women may blunt the impact of voters’ concerns about Clinton, it was taken before Friday’s news that the FBI will investigate whether there is classified information in newly uncovered emails related to its probe of her private server. Those emails were not from her server, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss details publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Before the development, the poll found that about half of voters say her use of the private server while she was secretary of state makes them less likely to vote for her. But they were more likely to say that Trump’s comments about women bother them a lot than to say the same about Clinton’s email server, 51 percent to 43 percent.

Since September, Clinton seems to have consolidated her support within her own party and drawn undecided voters such as Miller to her campaign, or at least pushed them away from Trump. The billionaire’s recent trouble with women seems to be one factor preventing him from doing the same.

He feuded with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado after Clinton noted he’d called her “Miss Piggy” for gaining weight while she wore the crown. Days later, a 2005 recording surfaced in which Trump can be heard describing himself sexually assaulting women in a conversation with Billy Bush, then the host of “Access Hollywood.”

Several women have since publicly accused Trump of groping and kissing them without permission, including a People magazine reporter who said Trump attacked her when his wife, Melania, was out of the room.

Trump called his remarks on the video “locker room talk,” dismissed the accusations as “fiction” and said of several accusers that they aren’t attractive enough to merit his attention.

Asked Thursday on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” whether he thinks he would be ahead were it not for the “Access Hollywood” video, Trump replied, “I just don’t know. I think it was very negative.”

A majority of voters, 52 percent, say allegations about the way Trump treats women make them less likely to vote for him, including a fifth of Republican likely voters. And within that group, only about a third say they will vote for him, with about a third supporting Clinton and the remainder supporting third party candidates.

That may help explain why just 79 percent of Republican in the poll said they’re supporting Trump compared with 90 percent of Democrats supporting Clinton. Trump needs to close that gap to have any shot at victory.

Trump has tried to equate the accusations against him with charges of infidelity and sexual assault leveled for years against his rival’s husband, former President Bill Clinton. Trump has paraded the former president’s accusers before the cameras and accused Hillary Clinton of undermining her husband’s accusers.

The poll shows a majority of voters don’t buy Trump’s attempt at equivalence. Six in 10 say the allegations against the Clintons have no impact on their vote. That’s despite the fact that 63 percent think Hillary Clinton has probably threatened or undermined women who have accused her husband of sexual misconduct.

“The vote will be about Hillary Clinton, not her husband,” said Ryan Otteson, 33, of Salt Lake City, who’s voting for a third-party candidate, conservative independent Evan McMullin.

Valori Waggoner, a 26-year-old from Belton, Texas, said she believes Hillary Clinton probably did intimidate her husband’s accusers, but she said it makes no difference to how Waggoner is voting.

Waggoner was not going to vote for Clinton anyway, because as a doctor, Waggoner said she sees firsthand the inefficiency of the national health care plan that Clinton supports. But the alleged wrongdoing by Trump made her less likely to vote for the Republican. Instead, she’s backing Libertarian Gary Johnson.

The degree of alleged wrongdoing by the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, Waggoner said, “are not equal.”

Most likely voters in the poll say they think Trump has little to no respect for women, with female voters especially likely to say he has none at all.

Clinton leads female likely voters by a 22 point margin in the poll, and even has a slight 5 point lead among men. In September’s AP-GfK poll, Clinton led women by a 17 point margin and trailed slightly by 6 points among men.

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The AP-GfK Poll of 1,546 adults, including 1,212 likely voters, was conducted online Oct. 20-24, using a sample drawn from GfK’s probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 2.75 percentage points, and for likely voters is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Respondents were first selected randomly using telephone or mail survey methods and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t have access to the internet were provided access for free.

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Online:

Poll results: http://ap-gfkpoll.com