A Fresh Blast of Discontent Reshapes the Political Order

A fresh blast of public discontent reshaped American politics yet again in the 2014 midterm elections, handing the Republican Party control of the Senate and its largest house majority in 86 years. Its source: Seemingly unending economic woe - and the political discord it fuels.

Seven long years after the economy tanked, 70 percent of voters Tuesday said it's still in bad shape. Seventy-eight percent said they're worried about its direction in the year ahead. Only three in 10 said their own economic situation has improved in the last two years.

And nearly half of voters said they expect life for the next generation of Americans to be worse - by far the most to say so in exit polls asking the question back to 1996.

These results inform views of the country's condition and the quality of its governance alike. Sixty-five percent said the nation is headed seriously off on the wrong track, the second most in available exit poll data back to 1990, trailing only its level in 2008. A mere 20 percent said they trust the government in Washington to do what's right all or most of the time. Fifty-five percent disapproved of Barack Obama's performance - up by 10 points vs. 2012, looking much like it did in his first midterm election in 2010, when his party lost 63 House seats.

Such views customarily slam the president's party, and so they did again. Exit poll results, analyzed for ABC News by Langer Research Associates, found that government distrusters favored Republicans in the national House vote by 57-40 percent; "wrong track" voters by 69-29 percent; Obama disapprovers by 83-15 percent.

Turnout patterns turned injury into slaughter. Repeating a now typical pattern in midterms, Republicans matched Democrats voter for voter - each accounted for 36 percent, compared with 6- and 7-point Democratic advantages in the last two presidential contests.

The fact that Democratic voters are not particularly reliable midterm voters was borne out in other results. Young adults, a Democratic mainstay, accounted for just 13 percent of voters this year, down from 19 percent in 2012. Those who did participate, moreover, supported Democrats only by 54-43 percent, down from a 60-38 percent margin in their House vote two years ago. Nonwhites - a growing share of the electorate - slipped to 25 percent of voters, more than in any previous midterm but also 3 points off their share in 2012.

Single women, another core Democratic group, gave the party their smallest margin, 60-38 percent, in exit polls back to 1992. Women overall voted +5 points Democratic for House, 52-47 percent - down from +11 in 2012. Men, for their part, voted +14 Republican, 56-42 percent.

Key Republican groups came out swinging. Eighty-five percent of conservatives voted Republican, the most on record (albeit by a single point from 2010). White men voted Republican by 64-34 percent, the widest GOP advantage in this group in data since 1984. Seniors - 22 percent of voters - backed Republicans for the House by 57-42 percent.

And independents, back to their swing-voter status in this election, voted Republican by a 12-point margin, trailing only the 2010 and 1994 GOP advantages in this group.

Much of this rests at Obama's front door. Disapproval of the president correlates highly with his party's losses in midterms. And 32 percent said they were voting to show opposition to Obama, vs. 19 percent voting to show him support - a similar negative split as in the 2010 midterms, and similar again to what George W. Bush saw in 2006, when his GOP lost 30 seats.

Still, as they celebrate their showing, the Republican Party's leadership may also contemplate the following results - among the selfsame electorate that boosted them so high:

  • While 59 percent of voters said they're dissatisfied or even angry with the Obama administration, as many, 60 percent, said they're dissatisfied or angry with the Republican leaders in Congress.
  • While 54 percent of voters expressed an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party, 54 percent also said they have an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party.
  • While 48 percent said Obamacare went too far, 46 percent said it didn't go far enough, or has it about right.
  • Forty-nine percent said they support same-sex marriage; 48 percent oppose it.
  • Fifty-three percent said they support legal abortion; 43 percent oppose it.
  • Fifty-eight percent said they see climate change as a serious problem.
  • Sixty-three percent said the economic system favors the wealthy - and those who feel that way voted for Democratic House candidates by 64-35 percent.

Those results underscore the challenges that now seem endemic in national elections. The pattern's now lasted since 2004: A president is elected, or re-elected, and two years later the voters take his party to the woodshed. Changing that pattern will take a markedly better economy - and perhaps also a record of governance, by either party, or both - successful enough finally to calm the long-running discontent that continues to roil U.S. politics.

What that was the view nationally, the midterms play out in state-to-state battles. Key ones are summarized below.

ALASKA SENATE

The race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and his Republican challenger Dan Sullivan remained too close to project a winner. Working against Begich, turnout among women was down 4 points from when he last won in 2008. Turnout among independents was at a record high, 51 percent, in Alaska Senate exit polls dating back to 1992, and they were going slightly for Begich over Sullivan, 47-44 percent. Sullivan benefitted from the fact that Republican voters outnumbered Democratic voters in the state by 11 points.

ARKANSAS SENATE

Republican challenger Tom Cotton defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in a race that largely came down to dissatisfaction with Obama and broader political discontent. Seventy-four percent said the country is headed seriously off on the wrong track, among the highest in any state, and Cotton won this group by 74-22 percent. Two-thirds of voters disapprove of Obama's job performance, and they voted 80-16 percent for Cotton. Among the 55 percent who think the federal healthcare law went too far, a key issue in this race given Pryor's support for Obamacare, Cotton won by 81-17 percent. And just 29 percent of voters were Democrats, a low in Senate exit poll data in this increasingly red state since 1992.

COLORADO SENATE

The state perhaps most emblematic of "Obama's America" reversed course dramatically, ousting Democratic incumbent Mark Udall in favor of Republican Cory Gardner. When Udall was elected in the Obama wave of 2008, nonwhites voted for him by a 36-point margin. That shrunk to 10 points this year, 52-42 percent, the narrowest Democratic advantage among this group in Senate races back to 1992. Turnout among women and Democrats were at lows in data back to 1992, also contributing to Udall's defeat. Independent voters, a group Udall won by 15 points in 2008, broke for Gardner by 50-42 percent. And among Colorado voters who were unhappy with the Obama administration, 77 percent backed the Republican.

GEORGIA SENATE

Broad discontent and anti-Obama sentiment combined with strong conservative turnout helped propel Republican David Perdue to victory over Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn. Two-thirds of Georgia voters said the country is on the wrong track, 60 percent said they're unhappy with Obama's administration and 57 percent disapprove of his job performance; Perdue won 72, 82 and 88 percent support among these groups, respectively. While turnout among nonwhites in Georgia was at a record high, 36 percent, so was turnout among conservatives, 42 percent - enough to give Perdue the win.

IOWA SENATE

Winning independents by 10 points and rural voters by a 20-point margin helped Republican candidate Joni Ernst, famous for her hog castration TV ad, defeat Democrat Bruce Braley. Ernst won men by 16 points, 56-40 percent, and pulled essentially even among women. Economic struggles also influenced this race: Seventy-nine percent of Iowa voters said they're worried about the economy, and they backed Ernst by 20 points, 57-37 percent. She did even better among the 37 percent who are the most worried, winning 73 percent support. Finally, Braley's efforts throughout the campaign to brand Ernst as too conservative were unsuccessful: Forty-seven percent said her positions on the issues were "about right," while 44 percent said Braley's, instead, were too liberal.

KANSAS SENATE

Despite tying the lowest turnout among Republicans in Senate races in at least 22 years, Republican Pat Roberts won re-election against Greg Orman, an independent, on the strength of broad dissatisfaction with Obama and his policies. Obama's job approval among Kansas voters was just 32 percent. Forty-three percent voted to express opposition to the president, vs. just 8 percent who voted to support him. Fifty-two percent of voters said the president's 2010 health care law went too far - and they backed Roberts by 81-16 percent. Half of voters also said that Orman's previous business dealings raised concerns about his overall honesty, and 81 percent of them cast their vote for Roberts. And while six in 10 Kansas voters said that Roberts has spent too much time away to represent the state effectively, 38 percent of them voted for him anyway.

KENTUCKY SENATE

Presumptive new Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell easily won re-election again over Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat. He benefitted from disaffection overall and especially with Obama. Seventy-two percent of voters said the country's seriously off on the wrong track; they voted 68-27 percent for McConnell. Sixty-six percent said they disapprove of Obama's job performance; they voted 78-16 percent for McConnell. The 34 percent who approve of Obama's work in office was among the lowest in any state with an exit poll.

LOUISIANA SENATE

Record turnout among nonwhites wasn't enough to propel incumbent Mary Landrieu to re-election in Louisiana's Senate race, where she's headed to a runoff against Republican candidate Bill Cassidy. In that eventual runoff, Cassidy appears to have the advantage - 51-43 percent - over Landrieu, at least among those who turned out yesterday. Landrieu won women, 48-36 percent; Cassidy won men, 47-35 percent. Landrieu, first elected in the Obama wave in 2008, was damaged by perceptions she's too close to him on the issues; 57 percent said so, and they voted overwhelmingly for Cassidy. Voters divided on what they thought of Cassidy's ideology, with 35 percent saying he's "about right," 32 percent that he's too conservative and 26 that he's not conservative enough.

NEW HAMPSHIRE SENATE

Scott Brown's moving to New Hampshire to mount a Republican run for the Senate didn't sit well with voters in the Granite State, helping incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen hold onto her seat on what was otherwise a very bad night for Democrats nationwide. Fifty-three percent said Brown has not lived in New Hampshire long enough to represent the state effectively; among them, Shaheen won 89 percent of the vote. Shaheen also benefitted from a 19-point advantage vs. Brown among women, 59-40 percent. And though 59 percent of New Hampshire voters were dissatisfied or angry with the Obama administration, even more, 65 percent, felt the same way about the Republican leaders in Congress.

NORTH CAROLINA SENATE

Republican Thom Tillis unseated freshman Democratic Kay Hagan in part because of the 68 percent of North Carolina voters who think the country is on the wrong track. Additionally, just 36 percent of voters were Democrats, the fewest in North Carolina Senate exit polls since 1984, and down from 42 percent when Hagan was elected during the Democratic wave of 2008. Tillis worked to use Obama's unpopularity against Hagan, and 52 percent of voters said she agrees with Obama too often. Likewise, 60 percent expressed a negative view of the Obama administration. More than three-quarters of them voted for Tillis.

OREGON SENATE

At a time of deep national anxiety and an unpopular president from his party, Democratic candidate Jeff Merkley managed to find safe harbor in Oregon again Republican Monica Wehby. Turnout among Democrats was 1 point from its all-time high, at 38 percent of voters; indeed Democrats outnumbered Republicans by even more than they did in 2008. And 35 percent of voters identified themselves as liberals - a record for Senate exit polls in the state back to 1984. As in the rest of the country, many in Oregon - 55 percent - expressed negative feelings about the Obama administration. But Merkley held on to 28 percent of those voters. And far more -three-quarters - said they hold negative views of Republican leaders in Congress.

SOUTH DAKOTA SENATE

Former Gov. Mike Rounds, the Republican, won the South Dakota Senate race in part because independent candidate Larry Pressler siphoned far more votes from the Democrat, Rick Weiland.

Pressler, a former U.S. senator, attracted twice as many Democratic voters (21 percent) than Republicans (10 percent). Rounds prevailed despite concern about his role in a controversial program that provided green cards to wealthy immigrants. More than half disapproved of Rounds' handling of the EB-5 visa program when he was South Dakota's governor - but a quarter of this group voted for him anyway. Rounds also did a better job navigating the bleak mood and negative climate. Eight in 10 expressed worries about the economy, and Rounds won 59 percent of those worried voters. Sixty-eight percent said the country is seriously on the wrong track; Rounds won most of them, too.

VIRGINIA SENATE

Democratic Senator Mark Warner is in a battle with Republican Ed Gillespie to retain his seat, with the outcome of the Virginia Senate race uncertain. One factor is Warner's far lower support among several groups that sent him to the Senate in 2008. He won 56 percent of white voters in 2008, vs. winning only 37 percent this year. And Warner and Gillespie split independents, a group Warner won by 38 points in 2008. Further, Warner in 2008 won voters worried about the economy by 35 points; this year he lost that group to Gillespie by 18 points. Obama was a factor: Fifty-eight percent of voters said they disapprove of the president's job performance and eight in 10 of them favored Gillespie. And 68 percent said the country's heading seriously off on the wrong track. They backed Gillespie by more than two to one.

WEST VIRGINIA SENATE

Discontent among West Virginia voters was broad: Eighty percent said the country is headed seriously off on the wrong track, the most of any state. They backed Republican candidate Shelley Moore Capito over Democrat Natalie Tennant by 75-23 percent. Three-quarters in the state said they disapprove of Obama's job performance; 78 percent in this group backed Capito. Nine in 10 were worried about the direction of the national economy; she won 68 percent of them. Despite their voter registration advantage in the state, Democrats turned out in the fewest numbers in Senate exit polls back to 1996, making up 40 percent of the electorate. Turnout among independents, at 26 percent, was its highest - and they supported Capito by 42 points.

FLORIDA GOVERNOR

In an example of the nationalized trend that boosted Republicans, more than six in ten voters said the country is seriously off on the wrong track - and they supported incumbent Republican Rick Scott over his challenger, Democrat Charlie Crist, by 64-31 percent. Scott was further helped by low turnout among Democrats - at 32 percent, its lowest in gubernatorial exit polls in Florida dating back to 1994. And Scott benefitted from perceptions of opportunism by his opponent, who previously served as a Republican governor in the state. Sixty percent of voters said they thought Crist changed his party affiliation more to win elections, rather than to reflect his own beliefs - and this group supported Scott by 71-22 percent.

KANSAS GOVERNOR

Gov. Sam Brownback won re-election with broad support among the large number of Kansas voters who said they're worried about the state of the economy and the country overall. Eighty-three percent were worried about the direction of the nation's economy and more than seven in 10 said the country is seriously off on the wrong track; these groups supported Brownback by 15 and 28 points, respectively, over his opponent, Paul Davis. Brownback's chief vulnerability was the controversial tax cuts he passed. A majority of voters said those cuts have hurt the state - but Brownback's overwhelming support (95 percent) among those who instead feel they were beneficial helped him carry the race.

PENNSYLVANIA GOVERNOR

Independent voters made the difference in spoiling incumbent Republican Tom Corbett's reelection bid: after supporting him by 18 points in 2010, independents this year voted 57-41 percent for Democrat Tom Wolf, making Pennsylvania one of the few states to swim against the GOP tide. Corbett also lost 15 points among men vs. 2010, from 59 percent to 44 percent, and 14 points among whites, 61 vs. 47 percent.

WISCONSIN GOVERNOR

Republican incumbent Scott Walker won an election in Wisconsin for the third time in the last four years (one a recall), defeating Democratic challenger Mary Burke. As in 2010, Walker won men and independents, this time by 21 and 11 points, respectively. Views on the economy, jobs and health care played a role. Eighty-four percent of voters were worried about the direction of the national economy in the next year; Walker won them by 15 points. A plurality of voters, 42 percent, said the job situation in their area is better today than it was four years ago - and they backed Walker by 83-17 percent. And 44 percent of the voters say Obamacare went too far, they went for Walker over Burke by 65 points. But Walker's popularity only goes so far: even with his win, 55 percent of Wisconsin voters said he would not make a good president.

Analysis by Gary Langer, Gregory Holyk, Julie Phelan, Ryan Struyk, Damla Ergun, Christopher Weiss and Brian Hartman.

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