For Romney, it's statistics such as the drop in median household income: a 4.8 percent inflation-adjusted decline from June 2009 (the end of the recession) to June 2012, when it was $50,964, according to a report by Sentier Research,

Hopkins' says his own view is based on the general state of the economy, while the candidates' "better off" question is aimed at voter sentiment. "When a politician asks that," he explains, "they are really hoping to tap into people's gut feelings, not have them do a rational cost-benefit analysis."

So what are those feelings on the eve of the election?

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll reported 22 percent of likely voters say they're better off financially than when Obama became president, a third say they're worse and nearly half report being in about the same shape. Those are the broad strokes; it's the singular stories, though, that reveal hope and confidence, frustration and insecurity. Here are a few from around the nation:

___

THE BUILDER

Four years ago, Dan Manjack was scraping by, a Florida building contractor struggling to stay afloat in a state drowning in foreclosures.

"It's probably the first time in my life that I felt fear," says Manjack, a 44-year-old Army veteran. "I had four kids to support. I had an ex-wife (they were divorcing at the time) to support.... My life savings were gone. My checking was gone. They were dire times."

He eked out a living by taking small construction jobs and dabbling in marketing ventures; he even considered moving to Dubai. "I was trying to do everything I could to survive," he says. "I really didn't know where to go, to be honest with you."

He headed north. Destination: Williston, N.D., ground zero in an enormous oil boom.

A friend had put him in touch with an investor who wanted him to come there to build a man camp â¿¿ temporary housing for workers flooding into the area.

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