It's a staple of every presidential election, a single question that puts the incumbent's record on trial and asks American voters to be the jurors.
"Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Ronald Reagan asked in 1980 at the end of a televised debate. The answer was his landslide win. Since then, the question has become a cudgel for political challengers, a survey question for pollsters and a barometer for the mood of the country.
Campaign 2012 is no exception. Mitt Romney and his surrogates have stitched the question into a stinging indictment of current White House economic policies, answering with a resounding no. But in an unusual twist, President Barack Obama and the Democrats have asked, too, and responded with an emphatic yes. They pose their own question: Want to go back to 2008-early 2009, when millions lost their jobs, banks failed and the country teetered on the edge of collapse?
So who's right? It depends. On whom you ask. Where you go. And what yardstick you use to judge.
"It's tough to give a one- or two-word answer," says Mark Hopkins, senior economist at Moody's. "It all depends on what you're looking at. I don't think anyone can really argue seriously that we're not better off than we were four years ago. ... And I would be just as incredulous if anyone tried to argue we're fine or couldn't be doing better."
Both campaigns rely on numbers to woo voters. For Obama, it's employment: In the month when he took office, January 2009, the nation lost 881,000 jobs, according to federal numbers. This September, 114,000 jobs were added — the 31st straight month, Obama points out, of private sector job growth.
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:
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 — temporary housing for workers flooding into the area.
The investor portrayed Williston as modern-day gold rush country, So Manjack made the 1,500-mile trek. Before the camp was even finished, it was sold and he realized he was in a land of limitless opportunity.
There's no doubt where he stands on that "better off" question.
"I think you can get rich up here," he says, "but it takes sacrifice."
Manjack traded his 1,800-square-foot Florida condo for a 40-foot motor home and 16-hour work days, far from his kids in Texas. But he has no regrets. Friends who told him he was crazy to go now call, looking for jobs.
He's building a downtown office and condo and already has started a construction company.
Along with financial security, Manjack says he has "the feeling of American pride, that you're doing your part in getting the U.S. off foreign oil. It's exciting to live here."
"Four years ago, I didn't have any direction," he says. "I didn't know what the economy was going to do. I didn't know what construction was going to do. ... I feel like I found out where I want to be. ... I don't know how I got to North Dakota. But I'm really glad I did."