2010 Elections Exit Poll Analysis: The Political Price of Economic Pain

Voter Discontent Over Sputtering Economy, Jobs Creates a GOP Tide

By ANALYSIS by Gary Langer

Nov. 3, 2010

Voters frustrated with a sputtering economy called time Tuesday on a president who promised change, handing control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans and narrowing the Democratic advantage in the Senate.

The results underscored the economic distress defining the 2010 election. Eighty-nine percent of voters said the national economy's in bad shape -- nearly as many as the record 92 percent who said so two years ago. What changed is the direction of their ire: In 2008, 54 percent of such voters favored Barack Obama. This year, 55 percent backed Republicans for the House.

Only 14 percent, moreover, said their own family's financial situation has improved in the last two years -- the fewest in exit polls back to 1984. Forty-one percent, by contrast, said they're worse off -- and favored Republicans by nearly 30 points.

Few saw much respite: Compounding the political impact of the long downturn, 87 percent remain worried about the economy's direction in the next year -- including half "very" worried. They voted more than 2-1 for Republicans this year, 70-28 percent.

The economy has deeply affected the broader public mood. Sixty-one percent in the national exit poll said the country's headed seriously off on the wrong track; they supported Republicans by 75-23 percent. More broadly, 38 percent said they expect life for the next generation of Americans to be worse than it is today, vs. 32 percent better -- a negative balance on one aspect of the American dream.

Results of the 2010 exit polls were analyzed for ABC News by Langer Research Associates.

Dissatisfaction with Government

Seventy-four percent described themselves as dissatisfied or even angry about the way the federal government is working, compared with 71 percent in 1994, when the Republicans seized the House, and a whopping 79 percent in 1992, when they lost the presidency.

The "angry" vote differential, in particular, was huge -- vastly more so than in 1992 or 1994, the previous times the question was asked. Tuesday, angry voters (26 percent overall) went 84-13 percent in favor of Republicans for House. That gaping 71-point margin widened from 39 points, 73-34 percent, in favor of the Republicans, in 1994, and a 20-point margin, 56-36, for House Democrats among angry voters in 1992.

Another dramatic shift: Exit polls have had varying "most important issues" lists since 1992 with "the economy" as an issue. This year, 62 percent of voters picked it as the single most important issue in their vote -- and they voted 53-44 percent for Republicans for House. It was the first time economy voters favored Republicans.

Obama, Congress Unpopular

The Great Recession has taken its toll on Obama and Congress alike. Forty-five percent of voters said they approved of Obama's job performance; 54 percent disapproved -- and voted 85-11 percent for GOP House candidates. Critically, just a third said the administration's economic stimulus program has helped the economy -- a harsh judgment after $800 billion spent.

The Congress came out far more unpopular: just 25 percent of voters approved of the way it's doing its job.

Another result further underscores general public discontent and sounds a cautionary note for the Republicans in the midst of their victory. Just 43 percent of voters expressed a favorable opinion of the in-power Democratic Party, vs. 52 percent who saw it negatively. But on the Republican Party, it was essentially the same -- 41 percent favorable, 53 percent unfavorable.

A Republican Day

The Republicans relied on differential turnout. Among Tuesday's voters, 46 percent voted for Obama in 2008, 45 percent for John McCain -- an election Obama won by 53-45 percent. Thirteen percent of Obama voters defected to Republicans for Congress, while 8 percent of McCain voters favored Democrats. And among other voters -- the 8 percent who either didn't vote, or voted for someone else, in 2008 -- Republicans won by 57-36 percent.

GOP candidates scored better than they have in decades among some key demographic groups. Consider:

Women voted 49-48 percent for Democratic vs. Republican House candidate -- the best for Republicans among women in national House vote in exit polls since 1982. Obama won women by 13 points in 2008.

Democrats and Republicans were at parity in self-identification nationally, 36-36 percent, a return to the close division seen in years before 2008, when it broke dramatically in the Democrats' favor, 40-33 percent.

Swing-voting independents who, as usual, made the difference, favored Republicans for House by a thumping 16 points, 55-39 percent. Compare that to Obama's 8-point win among independents in 2008. It was the Republicans' biggest win among independents in exit polls dating to 1982 (by two points. The GOP won independents by 14 points in 1994, the last time they took control of the House.)

Sixty percent of whites backed Republican House candidates, the most in exit polls dating back to 1982. (In presidential rather than House vote Ronald Reagan won more whites in 1984).

Conservatives accounted for 41 percent of voters -- a high in recent exit polls exceeded, in available data, only by 43 percent in that Reagan re-election of 1984.

It also was the biggest vote for Republicans among white Catholics -- like independents, a true swing voter group. They voted 40-58 in favor of Republicans for House. In the next widest, in 1994, Republicans won white Catholics by 55-44 percent. Seniors accounted for 23 percent of the vote, their highest in national House vote in data back to 1992, and their 18-point margin in support of Republican candidates, was the best such margin among seniors in House vote for the GOP, in available exit poll data since 1992.

Regionally, the South went hugely for Republican House candidates, 58-39 percent, the best GOP advantage in the South in exit polls since 1990. And Republicans ran +9 in the Midwest, their best since their +9 in 1994.

In 2008, working-class white men and women (those who make <$50,000) split about evenly in their House vote. Tuesday they favored the Republican candidate -- men by a double-digit margin, 55-42 percent; women by 8 points, 52-44 percent.

The Tea Party

One widely discussed effect of public disenchantment this year has been the rise of the Tea Party political movement. Forty percent of voters described themselves as supporters of the Tea Party (21 percent supported it strongly) and they voted by an overwhelming 86-11 percent for Republican House candidates. Thirty-one percent opposed the movement and voted 86-12 for Democrats; the rest, 25 percent, were "neutral" about it and split about evenly.

In another question, measuring a key aspect of the movement's message, 56 percent of voters said government "is doing too many things better left to business and individuals," vs. 38 percent who said it "should do more to solve problems."

Still, just 22 percent said they voted to send a message in favor of the Tea Party movement, vs. 18 percent against it; 56 percent called the movement "not a factor" in their vote.

For comparison, in an election likely to be seen as a referendum on the president, 24 percent said they voted to show support for Obama; 37 percent to oppose him. (An additional 37 percent said he wasn't a factor.) George W. Bush was a similar drag on his party in 2006; then voters, by 36-22 percent, said they were casting their ballot to express opposition to Bush, rather than support for him.

The Road Ahead

An interesting challenge for the new Republican leadership of the House will be what to do with the Bush-era tax cuts -- an issue on which voters today were divided. Thirty-nine percent of voters wanted these tax cuts continued for all Americans, but about as many, 37 percent, wanted them continued only for families with incomes under $250,000 a year. The rest, 15 percent favored letting them expire for all.

There's a similar challenge in sorting out priorities on a related issue: While 39 percent said the highest priority for Congress should be reducing the deficit, again about as many, 37 percent, said spending to create jobs should be the highest priority. The rest -- many fewer -- gave top priority to a third choice, cutting taxes.

There were sharp partisan differences here -- among Democrats, 58 percent give priority to spending on jobs; among Republicans and independents, the plurality, 47 percent, favor action on the deficit. And 64 percent of Republicans would continue the tax cuts for all; 51 percent of Democrats, only for less-than $250,000 households. Independents, on this, divide about evenly.

Then there's health care reform: Sixty percent of Democrats want it expanded; 81 percent of Republicans want it repealed, as do 53 percent of independents.

It'll be fun finding middle ground.

State-by-State Look at Key Races:

CALIFORNIA

GENDER: The GOP hoped to attract female voters with their first ever female Senate candidate in California, but incumbent Barbara Boxer won decisively among women -- a key part of her voting coalition -- pulling 55 percent compared to 39 percent for Carly Fiorina. She pulled even among men (49 percent versus 46 percent).

PARTY ID: Democrats have a big edge in voter registration, and with Democrats representing 43 percent of those who showed up at the polls, compared to 30 percent who were Republicans, Boxer had an edge that was difficult to erode. To make up for that advantage, Fiorina needed to win independents big. She did lead there, but narrowly, 47 percent compared to 42 percent for Boxer.

THE LATINO VOTE: Boxer ran strong among Latino voters -- representing 22 percent of the electorate, they went for her by 65 percent to 28 percent. Fiorina won among white voters, 52 percent to 43 percent, but it wasn't enough in an electorate where whites only made up six in ten voters.

EXPERIENCE: Boxer was one incumbent who may have been able to translate her experience into an advantage: overall 53 percent of voters said they preferred an insider who knows how to get things done to an outside who wants to shake things up (36 percent).

IMMIGRATION: Fiorina took a hard line on immigration -- backing the law passed in Arizona -- and it may have been a tough sell in California. Overall, 67 percent of voters said illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status. She also wasn't able to convince voters that she could translate her business success into creating jobs for Californians.

VIEWS OF DEMOCRATS: California's electorate is comparatively Democrat-friendly: 50 percent have a favorable view of the Democratic Party (higher than their nationwide approval, at 43 percent), while just 33 percent view the Republican Party favorably.

COLORADO

OBAMA: Obama carried Colorado with 53 percent of the vote in 2008; fewer voters Tuesday, 47 percent, approved of the job he is doing as president. Among those who disapprove, Republican Ken Buck won by 81 percent to 12 percent. But his Democratic opponent Michael Bennet won by an even broader margin, 90-7 percent among the 47 percent who approved of Obama's performance.

TEA PARTY: Tea Party sympathizers made up 41 percent of the electorate and voted 87 percent to 10 percent for Buck, a Tea Party favorite. But among the slightly more than a third (35 percent) who did not sympathize with the Tea Party movement, Bennet won by 93-3 percent.

OUTSIDER: Forty-five percent of voters here preferred "an outsider who wants to shake things up"; they voted 66 percent to 28 percent for Buck. But Bennet countered Buck's strength among the 43 percent who favored a political "insider who knows how to get things done," winning 66 percent of their votes.

WHITE EVANGELICALS: White evangelicals made up 20 percent of the electorate and voted 76-18 for Buck, who has called for "a closer relationship" between church and state.

COLLEGE GRADUATES: Two-thirds of the Colorado electorate has a college degree (67 percent) and these voters supported Bennet over Buck, 53-43 percent.

CONNECTICUT

DEMOCRATS: Bucking the national trend, Democrats turned out as strongly as in previous years in Connecticut, accounting for 40 percent of voters (compared with 38 percent in the 2006 midterms), helping Richard Blumenthal to his against-the-grain victory.

WOMEN: Running against a woman candidate, Blumenthal won women by a vast 60 to 39 percent.

ECONOMY: While 89 percent were worried about the economy, unlike elsewhere they didn't take it out on the Democrat; he won these voters by 54 to 45 percent.

WRESTLING: Forty percent said Linda McMahon's background with professional wrestling made them less likely to vote for her, and Blumenthal won them handily, by 86-12 percent. Of the rest, 48 percent said wrestling had no effect, but among those voters, many fewer, 57 percent backed McMahon. (Twelve percent said that wrestling made them more likely to vote for her.)

ATTACK: Voters thought both candidates attacked the other unfairly, but more thought McMahon attacked Blumenthal unfairly (69 percent) than vice versa (58 percent).

HONESTY: Blumenthal was viewed by 61 percent of voters as being "honest and trustworthy," despite having exaggerated his military record.

TEA PARTY: Opposition to the Tea Party in Connecticut was high compared to the national exit poll -- 43 percent oppose the movement in CT compared to 31 percent nationwide.

OBAMA: And again unlike the country overall, more Connecticut voters said they approve of the president's job performance than disapprove, 55 to 45 percent.

KENTUCKY

OBAMA: There was a strong anti-Obama sentiment in the Kentucky electorate: Voters there by a 22-point margin say they were casting their ballot to show opposition to Obama rather than support for him, 40 percent vs. 18 percent. And 63 percent disapproved of Obama's job performance overall, vs. 36 percent who approved.

Dissatisfaction with Obama translated directly into votes for Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul, who beat Jack Conway by 81-19 percent among those who disapproved of the job Obama is doing, and by 85-14 percent among those who cast their vote to express opposition to the president.

PARTISANSHIP: There was a higher-than-usual turnout among independents in Kentucky, and fewer Democrats than usual. That helped Paul, who won independents by 58-42 percent and got 91 percent of the Republican vote while Conway got a smaller share of his party's vote, 83 percent.

EXTREME: In a challenge to Paul's popularity, voters divided evenly, 48-48 percent, when asked if Paul's views are too extreme, a line of attack on which Conway focused. Fewer (41 percent) saw Conway as too extreme. But only 15 percent of those who viewed Conway as too extreme vote for him -- while, surprisingly, 27 percent of those who said Paul's views were out of the mainstream backed him anyway.

HEALTH CARE: A 53 percent majority said that the health care plan should be repealed, while 26 percent say it should be expanded and 15 percent said it should be left alone. Paul favors repeal; Conway backs the reform law. Paul won big among the majority of voters who say the health care law should be repealed (84-15 percent). But Conway won among the much smaller proportion of those who say it should be expanded (again 84-15 percent).

ROLE OF GOVERNMENT: Fifty-eight percent say government is doing too many things vs. 39 percent say it should do more to solve problems, in line with Paul's argument. Paul won 79-21 percent among voters who think government is doing too many things while those who think government should do more to solve problems favored Conway, but by a smaller margin (74-25 percent).

TEA PARTY: Kentucky voters supported rather than opposed the Tea Party movement ? with which Paul is associated -- by 43-28 percent-with 87 percent of supporters voting for Paul, as did 54 percent of those who view the movement neutrally. Conway won 90-9 percent among the 28 percent who opposed the movement.

FLORIDA

OBAMA: Obama had a 45 percent job approval rating in Florida (which he won with 51 percent of the vote in 2008); 53 percent disapproved. GOP Senate candidate Marco Rubio swamped his opponents among Obama disapprovers, with 81 percent of the vote, while Democrat Kendrick Meek and independent Charlie Crist divided Obama supporters.

ECONOMY: Forty-four percent in Florida said they're financially worse off now than they were two years ago; only 11 percent said they're better off. Sixty-one percent of all worse-off voters backed Rubio -- but he also won among those who said their financial situation was unchanged (45 percent vs. 32 percent for Crist and 21 percent for Meek).

INDEPENDENTS: Crist gambled to run as an independent when it became clear he would lose the GOP primary to Rubio. The incumbent governor lost that bet on Election Day: Independents voted 51 percent for Rubio, 35 percent for Crist, 10 percent for Meek.

IDEOLOGY: Conservative voters turned out in proportionally greater numbers than in past elections, comprising 40 percent of the electorate, up from 35 percent in 2008 and 34 percent when this seat was last contested in 2004. Eighty-one percent of conservatives voted for Rubio; he narrowly trailed Crist among moderates.

MORE OBAMA: More voters cast ballots to express opposition to Obama than to express support for him, 34 percent vs. 24 percent. (An additional 40 percent said the president was not a factor.) Rubio won 87 percent of the votes of Obama critics while splitting the vote with Crist among those who said Obama was no factor.

WHAT IF: Even without Crist in the race, Rubio likely would have won. He beat Meek 52-35 percent in a hypothetical matchup between the two.

FLORIDA GOVERNOR: Democrat Alex Sink won nearly nine in ten votes (89 percent) of her party's vote, but Republican Rick Scott matched her by claiming 88 percent of all GOP voters ?and 52 percent of independents. Democrats made up 36 percent of the electorate, Republicans 35 percent and independents 29 percent.

Scott had headed a health care company that was fined $1.7 billion for defrauding the government, and 46 percent of his voters had reservations about him; by contrast just 26 percent of Sink's voters had reservations about her. No winner was projected in this race by early Wednesday.

OHIO GOVERNOR

INDIES: Ted Strickland, an incumbent Democratic governor in a Republican year, lost ground among several key groups, none more important than independents. Four years ago Strickland racked up a whopping 69 percent of the independent vote. This year, John Kasich won this group by double digits, 52 percent to 39 percent.

WORKING-CLASS: Kasich led Strickland by 52 to 40 percent among working-class white voters (those in households making less than $50,000 per year), a group Strickland won last time and Obama managed to win narrowly in 2008. Strickland also underperformed compared to his last race among higher-income and older voters, who made up a larger share of the electorate this year than when he last ran.

ECONOMY: The economy was the dominant issue in Ohio. Sixty-three percent called it the most important issue in their vote, and they went for Kasich (51 percent vs. 45 percent).

UNION: Union turnout, important for Democrats in Ohio, looked to be down somewhat: Members of union households accounted for 23 percent of voters in preliminary exit poll results, vs. 28 percent in 2006, when Democratic Governor Ted Strickland won the seat he's now defending.

OBAMA: Kasich tried to tie Strickland to Obama, wisely: Fifty-four percent of Ohio voters said they disapprove of the job Obama's doing as president, with strong disapprovers outnumbering strong approvers 41 percent to 25 percent.

IDEOLOGY: Kasich also benefited from an increase in the proportion of voters calling themselves conservatives, up from 32 percent in 2006 to 41 percent now. Conservatives voted for Kasich by 78-19 percent.

PENNSYLVANIA

It was a close Senate race in Pennsylvania. Here's how Republican Pat Toomey ultimately gained the edge over Joe Sestak:

OBAMA: Those who approve of Barack Obama favored Sestak by 90-10 percent; those who disapproved of Obama favored Toomey by 87-13 -- but disapprovers slightly outnumbered approvers (53-47 percent).

PRIORITIES: Roughly equal numbers of Pennsylvanians thought Congress' highest priority should be to reduce the budget deficit (38 percent) vs. to create jobs (35 percent) -- and deficit voters voted for Toomey (66-34 percent) while jobs voters voted for Sestak, 79-21 percent. The 21 percent who instead thought Congress should focus on cutting taxes voted for Toomey 60-39 percent, and they helped to give Toomey the edge.

AGE: Voters under 44 favored Sestak, but those over 45 favored Toomey -- and they made up 66 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate.

ECONOMY: The poor economy and government dissatisfaction also played to Toomey's favor. Among those who called the economy the top issue facing the country, 56 percent voted for Toomey vs. 44 percent for Sestak; among the 51 percent who said they were very worried about the economy, Toomey won by 67-32 percent; and those who were dissatisfied with the way the government is working favored Toomey by 66-34 percent.

HEALTH CARE: Sestak, currently a House member, voted with Obama on issues like health care reform. But 41 percent of Pennsylvania voters said they would be worse off under reform, and they voted for Toomey by 85-15 percent. Those who said they'd be better off voted for Sestak 90-10, but they comprised only 25 percent of the electorate.

WISCONSIN

INDEPENDENTS: Independents (27 percent of voters), who helped elected Russ Feingold in each of his past elections, went for the Republican candidate Ron Johnson the time, by 55-43 percent.

ECONOMY: Wisconsin voters are hurting economically, with 44 percent saying their financial situation is worse now than two years ago -- and these voters went for Johnson 2-1 (66 percent to 33 percent). In each of his past elections Feingold won economically challenged voters handedly.

OLDER VOTERS: Older voters have voted for the Democratic candidate in each of the past three Senate races, including voting for Feingold in 2004 by a 14-point margin. But not this time -- those age 65 and older went for Johnson, 54-46 percent.

INSIDER VS OUTSIDER: Feingold won solidly among voters who thought having the right experience (86-14 percent) or believed understanding the needs of people like them (54-45) mattered most to their vote. But among the 29 percent who thought that a candidate who could bring about needed change mattered most Johnson won by a 3-1 margin, 75-24 percent).

IDEOLOGY: A substantial 39 percent of Wisconsin voters said Feingold is too liberal on the issues -- and they voted for Johnson, 96-4.

ILLINOIS

INDEPENDENTS : Independents -- quintessential swing voters -- have generally voted for the Democratic Senate candidate in previous elections except in 1998. But this year, they went for Republican Mark Kirk by a large margin, 58-29 percent, and he narrowly won.

OLDER VOTERS: Similarly older voters have generally voted for the Democratic Senate candidate in previous elections in Illinois, except in 1998. But this year, those aged 65 or older went for Kirk by 56-40 percent.

OBAMA: Barack Obama enjoys a 55 percent favorable rating among these voters, one of his best in any state. But given that he once held this Senate seat, it is notable that 16 percent of those who voted for Obama in 2008 crossed over to Kirk this year.

PRIORITIES: More Illinois Senate voters said they think that Congress' top priority should be to spend money to create jobs (41 percent) -- a group who went for Democrat Alexi Giannoulias by 73-22 percent -- than reduce the budget deficit (36 percent) or cut taxes (18). (As a Congressman, Kirk voted against the stimulus bill). However, those who preferred either reducing the deficit or cutting taxes went for Kirk overwhelmingly.

MISSOURI

PARTY ID: Republican Roy Blunt captured the Senate seat here in large part by beating Democrat Robin Carnahan by a double-digit margin among independents 56-35 percent. Carnahan won by 89-8 percent among Democrats. Roy Blunt won 94-4 percent among Republicans Likewise, Blunt won among moderates (55-41), and conservatives (84-11). Carnahan won among liberals 84-14, but only 20 percent of Missouri voters identified themselves as liberal.

OBAMA: Those who approve of Obama voted for Carnahan 88-10 percent, but those who disapprove of Obama ? the majority of Missouri voters - voted for Blunt, 83-12 percent.

HEALTH CARE: Those who think the health care law should be repealed voted 84-13 percent in favor of Blunt. Those who think it should be expanded voted 90-8 in favor of Carnahan. But those believing it should be repealed outnumbered those who think it should be expanded by 2-1.

THE STIMULUS: Voters who think the stimulus has helped the economy voted 89-10 percent in favor of Carnahan, but the greater number who think it hurt the economy or made no difference voted in favor of Blunt (hurt the economy: 83-12, made no difference: 54-38).

ROLE OF GOVERNMENT: The 53 percent of Missouri voters who feel that the government is doing too many things voted in favor of Blunt by 75-22 percent. The 45 percent who think the government should be doing more voted for Carnahan by an almost identical 76-21 percent. There just were fewer of them.

NEVADA

REID DISAPPROVAL: Consider the challenges facing Democratic incumbent Harry Reid: 56 percent of Nevada voters disapproved of the job he is doing in the Senate, with strong disapprovers outnumbering strong approvers by better than two to one (44 percent compared to 17 percent). And 55 percent said they think the Senate majority leader has been in Washington too long. Both those make his re-election remarkable.

GROUND GAME: Reid came back on other grounds. A narrow majority of voters (52 percent) said they prefer an insider who knows how to get things done over an outsider "who wants to shake things up" (40 percent). And Democrats hoped for much out of Reid's ground game, expanded from Obama's 2008 effort in the state. It delivered: While only 10 percent said they decided in the last week, Reid won that group by nearly 2-1 -- 58 percent to 32 percent. Republican Sharron Angle came about even among those who decided before then.

TURNOUT: There was no Republican surge in turnout. The partisan makeup of the electorate looked much like it did in 2008, a year in which Obama won the state with 55 percent of the vote. Overall, 34 percent said they were Democrats, 33 percent Republicans and 32 percent independents. And if anything, Republicans made up a smaller share of the electorate this time than they did in Reid's last race, in which he did not have a strong GOP challenger. (The electorate did look somewhat more conservative than in Reid's last race.)

INDIES: Independents went for Angle over Reid; but Reid pulled in 9 percent of Republicans as well as 91 percent of Democrats. And Latinos, 16 percent of voters, went strongly for Reid, 67-31 percent. Also crucial for Reid were voters from union households -- they made up 17 percent of the electorate, and went for the incumbent by 69-29 percent.

TEA: Even though the talk about Nevada was all Tea Party all the time, 59 percent of voters said the Tea Party, with which Angle was aligned, was not a factor in their vote. And though there was much talk about voters being lukewarm on Reid, more of his supporters said they strongly favored him (45 percent) than Angle supporters who strongly favored her (31 percent).

Contributors: Patrick Moynihan, Mollyann Brodie, Claudia Deane, Rich Morin, Julie Phelan, David Tully, Darya Isham.