By TOM RAUM and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

 WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans are growing more pessimistic about the economy and handling it remains President Barack Obama’s weak spot and biggest challenge in his bid for a second term, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

And the gloomier outlook extends across party lines, including a steep decline in the share of Democrats who call the economy “good,” down from 48 percent in February to just 31 percent now.

Almost two-thirds of Americans — 65 percent — disapprove of Obama’s handling of gas prices, up from 58 percent in February. Nearly half, 44 percent, “strongly disapprove.” And just 30 percent said they approve, down from 39 percent in February.

These findings come despite a steady decline in gas prices in recent weeks after a surge earlier in the year. The national average for a gallon of gasoline stood at $3.75, down from a 2012 peak of $3.94 on April 1.

U.S. presidents have limited ability to affect gas prices, which are determined in international markets. However, the party out of power always blames whoever is president at the time for high gas prices, as Republican Mitt Romney is doing now and as Democrat Obama did in 2008 when George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office.

Of all the issues covered by the poll, Obama’s ratings on gas prices were his worst.

The public’s views tilt negative on his handling of the overall economy, 52 percent disapprove while 46 percent approve. In February, Americans were about evenly divided on his handling of the issue.

The economy is the No. 1 issue in the presidential race, thanks to the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression and one of the shallowest-ever recoveries.

While the recession officially ended in summer 2009, unemployment remains stubbornly high, at 8.1 percent in April. Some 12.5 million Americans are out of work.

The increasing skepticism toward the recovery tracks a weakening overall economy as measured by the gross domestic product, and matches economic growth downgrades by many economic forecasters.

Against this background, the weak economy looms as a huge liability for Obama, and any drop in public confidence in his ability to deal with it can threaten his re-election prospects. Although Obama held broad advantages over Romney on handling social issues and protecting the country, when it came to the economy about the same percentage said they trust Romney to handle it as trust Obama.

Mindful of Obama’s vulnerability, Romney focuses frequently on the economy, suggesting that his business background makes him the candidate who can create jobs. Like most Republicans, he blames Obama’s policies for making the economy worse.

Obama acknowledges that times remain hard for many, but says conditions are slowly improving. He suggests the best chance for full recovery is if voters stick with him.

Heather Beckman, 29, of Lantana, Fla., is a Democrat who said she’s undecided about her vote but leaned to Obama. She believes the president can put the economy back on track, but not by himself. “At some point, the Republicans and Democrats have to come together to turn the economy around. As well as the rest of the country.”

However, Republican Roni Lovell, 68, of Edgewood, Wash., said Romney’s the one to help the economy turn the corner. “He has helped some really big companies come out of their financial woes,” said the retired school administrator. “Obama has proved he can’t do it and it’s time someone else gives it a try.”

The poll shows that optimism on an economic recovery earlier this year has all but stalled. The share of Americans describing the economy as “good” dropped 10 points since February, to 20 percent. Two-thirds see the economy as “poor” and about one in seven say it’s somewhere in between. And just 22 percent say the economy got better in the past month, down from 28 percent saying so in February.

Democrats remain more optimistic about the economy in the coming year than do independents and Republicans, but still, the percentage that is hopeful for improvement in the next year dipped 10 points since February.

Fewer than one in three expect their household’s economic fortunes to improve in the coming year, down from 37 percent in February. Eighteen percent see their finances as worsening, up from 11 percent in February.

And 35 percent expect the unemployment rate, which has been inching down for months, to start going back up. Thirty percent thought that in February. Independents are closer to Republicans than Democrats on that issue, with only 18 percent of independents and Republicans optimistic that the jobless rate will improve, while 40 percent of Democrats expect it to.

For now, Obama remains popular. His approval rating stands at 53 percent. But a stalling recovery could cause it to slide.

The AP-GfK poll was conducted May 3-7 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,004 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

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Associated Press writer Stacy A. Anderson and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed this report.

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Online: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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Follow Tom Raum and Jennifer Agiesta on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/tomraum and http://www.twitter.com/jennagiesta

 How the poll was conducted

 By The Associated Press

 The Associated Press-GfK Poll on President Barack Obama and the economy was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from May 3-7. It is based on landline and cellphone telephone interviews with a nationally representative random sample of 1,004 adults. Interviews were conducted with 703 respondents on landline telephones and 301 on cellular phones.

Digits in the phone numbers dialed were generated randomly to reach households with unlisted and listed landline and cellphone numbers.

Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish.

As is done routinely in surveys, results were weighted, or adjusted, to ensure that responses accurately reflect the population’s makeup by factors such as age, sex, education and race. In addition, the weighting took into account patterns of phone use — landline only, cell only and both types — by region.

No more than one time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause the results to vary by more than plus or minus 3.9 percentage points from the answers that would be obtained if all adults in the U.S. were polled.

There are other sources of potential error in polls, including the wording and order of questions.

The questions and results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com.

 Topline results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com and http://surveys.ap.org.

AP-GfK Poll: Economy, other issues overshadow abortion

DENVER (AP) — As a season of campaigning enters its final, intense weekend, a new Associated Press-GfK poll illustrates the challenge ahead for candidates and their allies trying to rally voters around traditional wedge issues such as abortion and gay marriage. This fall, voters just have other matters on their minds.

Social issues are eclipsed by concerns about the economy, health care, the Islamic State group and Ebola, the poll finds. And hovering over each of these individual issues is a broad dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama and Republican leaders in Congress.

Only 32 percent of likely voters called gay marriage an important issue, compared with 91 percent ranking the economy important, 78 percent with similar concerns about health care and 74 percent naming Ebola important. The issue that some Democrats have emphasized most of all — abortion rights — also has been a relatively low priority, with only 43 percent of likely voters in a September poll ranking it important.

Yet women’s health and reproductive rights have been at the center of campaigns for U.S. Senate in Alaska, Iowa, North Carolina and especially Colorado. There, half of the ads aired by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and those backing his re-election have criticized his GOP opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, on women’s health issues. They include a contention the 40-year-old congressman from eastern Colorado wants to ban some forms of birth control.

“Democrats this year clearly think that all that you need is that silver bullet of social issues,” said Katy Atkinson, a GOP political official in Denver. “It’s not. You need more.”

Gardner may have been able to parry the offensive by proposing that birth control pills be sold over-the-counter, without a prescription. After he began airing an ad on his proposal last month — as security concerns rose amid U.S. military action against the Islamic State group in the Middle East and the West Africa outbreak of the Ebola virus — Gardner moved ahead in public polls.

Gardner isn’t the only Republican to propose the sale of birth control over-the-counter. So, too, have Republicans running for Senate in North Carolina, Virginia and Minnesota.

The issue of access to birth control has also found its way into the Senate race in Iowa, where Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley has hammered his Republican opponent, state Sen. Joni Ernst, for her support of bestowing personhood status on a fetus. He says that would outlaw abortion, in-vitro fertilization and most kinds of contraception; she says she supports access to birth control and abortion in some circumstances.

Some voters have scoffed at the emphasis.

“They do a lot of yapping about how contraceptives have to do a lot with women’s health, which is a load of crap,” said Donald Johnson, 82, a staunch Republican in Clinton, Iowa. “If they want contraception, they can go and get it. It doesn’t cost that much. There’s no reason the government should be paying for it.”

On both abortion and same-sex marriage, recent AP-GfK polling has found likely voters more apt to trust Democrats than Republicans. But on issues that have captured more of voters’ attention this midterm season, such as the economy and protecting the country, Republicans have the advantage.

Republicans have emphasized terrorism and Ebola threats in the campaign’s closing days, though the poll suggests Ebola inspires less of a partisan preference than other issues.

Cindy Nath, a 59-year-old high school teacher in Colorado Springs, is most worried about economic inequality but also has concerns about reproductive freedom. A Democrat, she’s already cast an early ballot for Udall. But the issues her students discuss are very different — the Islamic State group and Ebola. “That’s what they’re talking about,” she said. “ISIS comes up every day.”

Women’s votes have shifted sharply between presidential years and midterm elections in recent contests, according to exit polling conducted for the AP and ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC. In 2012, women broke for Obama by an 11-point margin, while in 2010, when few candidates raised social issues as a major campaign theme, they split evenly between Democratic and Republican House candidates.

Atkinson noted that social issues usually poll low in priority but can be effective in defining candidates as too extreme. That’s how Democrats have won recently in Colorado. Although polling shows Udall slightly behind, his campaign believes he can win with a superior get-out-the-vote operation and by continuing to use women’s health issues to motivate key voting groups. Democrats are particularly targeting single women, whose participation dips in midterm elections.

The model is Sen. Michael Bennet’s 2010 come-from-behind win, where he similarly focused on women’s health. Still, a gender gap cuts both ways. Several recent polls in Colorado have shown Gardner’s advantage among men outpaces Udall’s among women.

But Jill Hanauer, a Denver-based Democratic strategist, said people should not mistake a temporary issue advantage for something permanent.

“Republicans have immediate issues to run on and Democrats have much broader, long-term ones like climate change and reproductive rights,” Hanauer said. “This election is one point in time, not a long-term trend.”

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Oct. 16-20, using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,608 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for all respondents.

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 with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

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Agiesta, AP’s director of polling, reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Stacy A. Anderson and Emily Swanson contributed to this report.

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Online:

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


AP-GfK Poll: 2 of 3 Americans think the threat posed by Islamic State is very important

By DEB RIECHMANN and EMILY SWANSON, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sixty-five percent of Americans now say the threat from the Islamic State group is very or even extremely important, and nearly half think the U.S. military response in Iraq and Syria has not gone far enough, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. Most want to see America’s partners step up their contribution to the fight,

Less than half, 43 percent, approve of the way President Barack Obama is handling the danger posed by the extremist militants.

Greg Franke, 24, of Columbia, South Carolina, was among the 55 percent of those who disapproved. Franke, a 24-year-old assistant editor at a research library, said he thought Obama was too hesitant in responding to the militants, who have employed brutal tactics to swiftly seize territory.

“I understand the need to be hesitant, but this was a group that was marching across parts of the Middle East, which is already unstable,” Franke said. “I think it warranted a swift and more decisive response.”

“I also think that his declaration that U.S. troops would not be involved was premature,” he said. “I don’t want U.S. troops involved. But I don’t think we need to close doors.”

A majority, 66 percent, favor the airstrikes the United States has been launching against the militants, yet 65 percent of those surveyed say Obama has not clearly explained America’s goal in fighting the Islamic State group. The president met with his national security team on Friday to discuss the Islamic State and talk via video teleconference with U.S. officials at the American Embassy in Baghdad and consulates in Irbil and Basra.

Here’s a look at the poll:

IS ENOUGH BEING DONE?

Forty-six percent said the U.S. military response has not gone far enough — up from 40 percent in September. Fifty-six percent said the military response from countries that have joined the U.S. in the fight against Islamic State militants has not gone far enough. The U.S. and partner countries, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been bombing Islamic State targets since August.

“It shouldn’t just be us. It shouldn’t just be ‘Oh, the United States is policing.’ It should be everyone is there policing and everybody believes this is wrong and everyone — worldwide — is trying to stop this,” said Kathy Robinson, 24, a Sterling, Virginia, woman who works at an information technology company.

At the same time, she thinks the United States eventually will put troops on the ground in the region “just to make sure nothing starts back up — to keep the peace.”

Only 32 percent think Obama has done a good job in clearly stating U.S. policy against the IS group. More than six in 10 of them think it’s either not likely or only moderately likely that the U.S. and its partners will achieve their goal in fighting IS.

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ARE AMERICANS FOLLOWING DEVELOPMENTS IN IRAQ, SYRIA?

While 47 percent of those surveyed said there’s a very or extremely high risk of another terror attack inside the United States, just a third said they have been keenly following the news about the U.S. military action against IS. An additional 38 percent said they were following the action somewhat closely, and 31 percent said they were keeping up not too closely or not closely at all.

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DO PEOPLE SUPPORT THE AIRSTRIKES?

While Americans support the airstrike, when it comes to supporting the idea of deploying U.S. ground troops, respondents were more guarded.

Thirty-seven percent said they opposed putting American forces on the ground, 33 percent favored the idea and 28 percent said they were neither for nor against it.

Obama has said repeatedly that he has no plans to send ground troops to Iraq or Syria. However, 28 percent thought it was very or extremely likely that he would, and an additional 45 percent thought it was moderately likely. Just 24 percent said it was not likely.

Michael Rainwater, 64, of Sammanish, Washington, doesn’t particularly want to see U.S. troops sent in, but thinks they might be deployed at some point.

“I think all of these things tend to escalate,” he said. “You can’t keep pouring fuel on the fire and expect the fire to get smaller. So every time we bomb or send in armed drones, you are creating more terrorists.”

He does not think, though, that the Islamic State is in a position to mount a 9/11-style attack against the U.S.

Said Rainwater, a retired software company owner: “It is more of a criminal entity because basically what they are doing is kidnapping people for ransom, taking over oil refineries for the income.”

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The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Oct. 16-20 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,608 adults, and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for all respondents. Respondents were selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were given free access.