In rendering its verdict to stay the course with a president diminished by governing in troubled times, the American electorate reflected the deep divisions defined by a bitter, wildly expensive campaign, exit polls showed.
The survey results reflect a nation beset by a sluggish economy, worried about the future, and sharply split over the policy prescriptions offered by President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney.
Seventy percent of voters said the economy was “not so good’’ or “poor,” and six in 10 identified it as their most pressing concern, with unemployment and the increased cost of living identified as the major problems. Health care and the federal government’s budget deficit were lower on the list of issues identified, but both are economy-related. A small percentage of voters identified foreign policy as the major issue.
About a quarter thought their financial situation had improved in the past four years, and a third said their situation was worse.
There was no consensus on the solutions, however. Nearly 50 percent of those surveyed said they favored repealing some or all of the health care overhaul enacted by Obama and the Democrats in 2010, a central campaign theme driven by Romney and the Republicans. About 43 percent said it should be preserved or expanded.
Meanwhile, six in 10 voters polled supported an increase in taxes, a rejection of Romney’s position, and nearly half of all voters said taxes should be increased on the wealthy, those making more than $250,000 a year, a key premise of the president’s reelection message. Only about one in seven said taxes should be increased across the board. More than a third said they should not be increased for anybody.
But roughly half of those surveyed agreed with Romney that government overreaches into areas best left to the private sector. About 40 percent thought government should do more, according to a late version of the survey.
The Election Day polls, conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of the Associated Press and television networks, surveyed voters as they left 350 selected precincts across the nation and in telephone interviews with other voters who had already voted by absentee ballot or early in states that allow it.
The Obama campaign had hammered away at Romney, portraying him as wealthy and out of touch with average Americans. The exit polls showed half of voters believed Romney’s policies favored the wealthy, compared with about 10 percent who said the same about Obama. About 40 percent of voters said Obama’s policies benefit the middle class.
One issue that apparently buoyed the Obama campaign in the critical state of Ohio was his backing of federal support for US auto manufacturers when they were in danger of failing as he took office in 2009. It was a constant thrust of the president’s campaign in that state, painting Romney as favoring a plan that would not have saved the industry. Roughly 60 percent of those polled said they favored the Obama plan compared with more than a third who disapproved of it, according to The New York Times.
Obama also appeared to connect with more voters, about 52 percent, who said he was in touch with people like them, compared with 44 percent who said that of Romney.
Overall, however, about a quarter of all voters polled said they were enthusiastic about the Obama administration, roughly the same as those who were angered by its performance.
On the issue of illegal immigration, about 30 percent of those surveyed favored deporting most illegal immigrants working in this country but about two-thirds said they should be given a path to legal status.
Both campaigns and their allied organizations spent heavily on advertising often aimed at specific demographic segments of the electorate, and the exit polls showed divisions by age, race, income, education, and gender.
The Obama campaign amassed a large and expensive field organization in an effort to expand the number of younger, African-American, and Latino voters, and the exit polls showed slight increases in those groups. However, Obama’s support among voters ages 18 to 29 was about 23 points higher than Romney’s but less than the 34 points by which he beat Republican John McCain in that group four years ago.
Romney led Obama by about 18 points among white voters, more than McCain’s 12-point margin in 2008. Similarly, the former Massachusetts governor led Obama 52 to 45 percent among men (Obama narrowly beat McCain among male voters four years ago), but Obama had a 12-point margin over Romney among women, who make up 54 percent of the electorate.
Obama overwhelmed Romney, as he did McCain, among black voters with support from 93 percent and among Latinos with 69 percent.
Among self-identified liberals, who made up 24 percent of those surveyed, Obama had the support of 86 percent. Among conservatives, 35 percent of those polled, Romney had the support of 82 percent. Among moderates, who accounted for 40 percent of those surveyed, 56 percent backed the Democratic incumbent.