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What the Voters Actually Said on Election Day

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A close look at the only polls we have of actual voters.

In 1968, CBS News conducted the first exit poll in a Kentucky gubernatorial contest. In every major election since, we have had polls of voters as they leave the polls. The exit polls are invaluable because they are the only polls we have of actual voters. While the media cover some of the highlights from the poll, they do not examine them closely or compare current results to those from previous elections. Here is a closer look—from A to Z—at some interesting findings from the exit poll conducted on November 2.

Afghanistan. Eight percent of voters in House races checked a box on the exit poll ballot indicating that Afghanistan was the most important issue facing the country. In another question on the exit poll, 40 percent of voters approved of the war, while 54 percent disapproved. Of voters who approved of the war, 26 percent voted for Democrats and 73 percent voted for Republicans. Of those who disapproved, 61 percent voted for Democrats and 36 percent for Republicans.

Blacks voted in overwhelming numbers for Democratic House candidates (90 percent) on Election Day. They are one of the few groups in politics whose allegiance to the Democratic Party appears unshakeable. They were 10 percent of the electorate, just as in 2006. But, in 2008, blacks were 13 percent of the electorate and their expanded presence contributed to Barack Obama’s substantial victory.

Conservatives were 41 percent of the electorate, up a significant 9 percentage points from 2006. They were more enthusiastic about GOP House candidates than in 2006, when 74 percent of self-identified conservatives supported Republicans. This year, 84 percent did. Self-identified liberals formed 20 percent of the electorate in both years. They voted massively for Democratic House candidates over GOP ones in 2010, 90 to 8 percent. The altered ideological composition of the electorate was one of the big stories of this election.

The altered ideological composition of the electorate was one of the big stories of this election.

Democrats and Republicans were 36 percent of voters in House races, and most of them supported their party’s candidates. Ninety-two percent of Democrats voted for Democrats and 95 percent of Republicans voted for GOP candidates in House races. Neither party got stellar marks from voters. Forty-three percent of voters in House races held a favorable view of the Democratic Party and 52 percent held an unfavorable opinion. For the Republican Party, those responses were 41 and 53 percent, respectively.

Economic issues were most important to voters on Election Day. Sixty-two percent said the economy was the most important issue facing the country. The other issues the exit pollsters asked about were healthcare (18 percent said it was the most important issue) and Afghanistan and immigration (each the most important to 8 percent). The economy was almost twice as important as these other three issues combined. Fourteen percent of voters said that their family’s financial situation was better than two years ago. That is the lowest response on this question since 1984. As to economic policy going forward, 39 percent indicated that reducing the deficit should be the highest priority for the next Congress, 37 percent said spending to create jobs should be the priority, and 18 percent said cutting taxes should be.

Future forecasts. Forty-four percent of voters said that Obama’s policies would help the country, while 52 percent said these policies would hurt. Thirty-two percent of voters said they expected life for the next generation of Americans to be better than life today, 38 percent worse, and 26 percent about the same.

Gender gaps were with us once again, with women tending to support Democrats and men tending to support Republicans. In House races, women voted 49 percent for Democrats and 48 percent for Republicans. Men voted 42 percent for Democrats and 55 percent for Republicans. The gender gap was 14 points. White men and white women voted for Republican candidates, although white men were more enthusiastic about them. Sixty-two percent of white men voted for Republican candidates; 57 percent of white women did.

Independents swung massively in the GOP’s direction and, for the third election in a row, swept the party in power out.

Homosexuals were 3 percent of voters, about what their share of the electorate has been in recent elections. But this year, self-identified gays, lesbians, and bisexuals looked more Republican than they did in either 2006 or 2008. In those years, 24 and 19 percent, respectively, voted for GOP candidates. This year, 30 percent did. Forty percent of voters in House races checked the box saying that same-sex marriages should be legally recognized. Fifty-four percent said they should not be.

Independents were one of the big stories of Election Day 2010. They swung massively in the GOP’s direction and, for the third election in a row, swept the party in power out. In 2006, they voted 57 to 39 percent for Democratic House candidates over Republican ones. This year, they flipped, voting 39 percent for Democrats and 55 percent for Republicans.

Joe Biden, Delaware’s native son, was popular at home, where 63 percent had a favorable opinion of him and 34 percent an unfavorable one. Bill Clinton was not quite as popular in his home state of Arkansas, where 58 percent of voters rated him favorably, and 38 percent unfavorably. In Texas, 57 percent had a favorable opinion of George W. Bush. In his home state of Illinois, 53 percent of voters approved of the job Obama is doing as president, while 46 percent disapproved.

Kentuckians supported the Tea Party by a plurality (43 percent). Twenty-eight percent in the Bluegrass State said they opposed it, and 27 percent were neutral. Forty-eight percent of voters there said Senator-elect Rand Paul’s views were too extreme, while an equal 48 percent said they were not. As for Paul’s opponent, Jack Conway, 41 percent said his views were too extreme (54 percent said they were not).

Forty percent of voters checked a box saying they supported the Tea Party movement, including 21 percent who said they supported it strongly.

Latinos were 8 percent of the national electorate. They comprised 22 percent of California’s electorate, and they voted 65 percent for Senator Barbara Boxer and 28 percent for challenger Carly Fiorina in the Senate contest. In the Texas gubernatorial race, they were 17 percent of voters, and voted for Bill White over Governor Rick Perry by 61 to 38 percent. In Nevada, they were 15 percent of voters, and they supported Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over challenger Sharron Angle by 68 to 30 percent. Sixty-four percent of them supported Reid’s son, Rory, in the governor’s race. In Arizona, they were 13 percent of voters, and they supported Rodney Glassman over Senator John McCain by 57 to 40 percent. In Florida, 55 percent of Latinos voted for Senator-elect Marco Rubio.

In California, Colorado, and Arizona, 67, 62, and 55 percent of voters in Senate contests, respectively, said most illegal immigrants should be given legal status. In the Colorado governor’s race, 62 percent of voters said most should be given legal status, and voters went 68 to 22 percent for John Hickenlooper over Tom Tancredo. Thirty-seven percent said most illegal immigrants should be deported, and they voted for Tancredo by 65 to 31 percent.

Money. In 1988, voters with family incomes of $100,000 or more formed 12 percent of the electorate. In 2010, this group represented 26 percent of voters. After voting narrowly for Republican House candidates in the past two elections, voters in this income group in 2010 voted substantially for GOP House candidates, 58 to 40 percent. Thirty-nine percent of Wisconsin voters said they were concerned about the amount of money Senate victor Ron Johnson spent, but 58 percent were not. In Nevada, 53 percent of voters in the Senate contest were worried about foreclosure for themselves or a relative. In California, 34 percent in the gubernatorial exit poll said their state could reduce its deficit without a tax increase; 59 percent said it could not.

New Hampshire voters, who vote in the first presidential primary, answered questions about two possible GOP candidates. Forty percent of voters in the Senate exit poll had a favorable opinion of Sarah Palin, while 56 percent had an unfavorable one. Those responses for Mitt Romney were 47 and 46 percent, respectively. In Iowa, an early caucus state, 41 percent in the Senate exit poll had a favorable opinion of Palin, and 54 percent an unfavorable one. For Romney, those responses were 37 and 45 percent, respectively.

Union households were 23 percent of voters in 2006; this year they were 17 percent.

Older voters. Voters who were 65 years and older voted for Republican House candidates by 58 to 40 percent. In 2006, they split their votes evenly. The electorate tends to be older in midterm elections, and voters age 50 and older constituted 57 percent of all voters.

Postgraduates were 20 percent of voters, and they supported Democratic candidates in House races on Election Day by 52 to 46 percent. The only other educational group to support Democratic House candidates was those with less than a high school diploma. This small group (3 percent of voters) voted 60 to 36 percent for Democrats. All other education groups (high school grads, those with some college education, and college grads) voted in majorities for Republicans.

Questions. This year, the exit-polling consortium of the five networks and the Associated Press asked questions of 17,504 respondents in House contests. Preliminary work has already begun on the 2012 poll.

Religion. Protestants were more than half of all voters (54 percent) in House races on November 2, and they voted for Republicans by 59 to 39 percent. Catholics composed a quarter of the electorate and voted for Republicans more narrowly, 53 to 45 percent. White Catholics, one of the true swing groups in our politics, voted more substantially for the GOP, 58 to 40 percent.

Suburban swing. Demographers like to say that “density equals Democrats.” And indeed, the 30 percent of the electorate that resided in urban areas voted 56 to 41 percent for Democratic candidates in House contests. Voters in the suburbs (half of all voters) voted for Republican candidates by 54 to 43 percent. In 2006 and 2008, more suburban voters voted for Democrats than Republicans. True to type, voters in rural areas leaned heavily to Republican House candidates, 60 to 38 percent.

This year, self-identified gays, lesbians, and bisexuals looked more Republican than they did in either 2006 or 2008.

Tea Party support. Forty percent of voters checked a box saying they supported the Tea Party movement, including 21 percent who said they supported it strongly. Thirty-one percent said they opposed the movement, and 25 percent said they were neutral.

Union households were 23 percent of voters in 2006; this year they were 17 percent. Their support for Democratic House candidates dropped from 64 percent in 2006 to 60 percent in 2010. On Election Day, Republicans had their best showing among union households since 1994.

Voters who voted for the first time composed 3 percent of the electorate. They voted for Democratic over Republican House candidates by 49 to 45 percent.

White working class is one of the important swing groups in our politics. Defined as whites without a college degree, this group voted for Republicans for Congress by a record 29 percentage points. Their strong support for Republicans contributed to the Republican rout.

X chromosome. Since 1980, women have been a slightly larger share of the electorate than men. On Election Day this year, 53 percent of voters were female, and 47 percent were male.

Young people were 18 percent of voters in 2008, when two-thirds of them voted for Obama. This year there were fewer of them in the electorate (they represented 11 percent of voters), and they voted 56 to 40 percent for Democratic candidates.

Zeal. Three percent of voters checked a box saying they were “enthusiastic” about the federal government. Twenty-one percent chose “satisfied,” 48 percent “dissatisfied,” and 26 percent “angry.” Those who were enthusiastic voted 90 percent for Democrats and 9 percent for Republicans in House contests. Angry voters voted 64 percent for Republicans and 33 percent for Democrats.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She and the editors of AEI’s Political Report crunched the numbers for this article.

FURTHER READING: Bowman and Andrew Rugg celebrated “An Enduring Culture of Free Enterprise,” studied “The State of the American Worker 2010,” and reviewed “Polls on Patriotism and Military Service, 2010.” Michael Barone observed “The Enduring Character of Democrats and Republicans in Times of Political Change” while Pete Peterson commented on “Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, and the Science of the Jeremiad.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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