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

Exit poll analysis shows voter discontent.

ByABC News
November 3, 2010, 3:29 AM

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.