Those who went to polls Tuesday seemed annoyed with all things Washington, rating neither the Republicans nor the Democrats favorably. Overwhelmingly, they are dissatisfied with the way the federal government is working, and a more than a fourth say they're angry about it, according to preliminary exit poll results. Three-fourths disapprove of Congress.
"I've never felt so much despair as I do right now," said John Powers, a Bayville, N.J., retiree who voted Republican out of animus toward Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Tea Party Gains Steam
Tapping into the grim national mood, the tea party made a splash. About 4 out of 10 voters endorsed the new movement, although most said it didn't influence how they voted in House races. Those who did use their ballots to send a message about tea partyers were slightly more likely to be signaling support for the movement than opposition.
In contrast, voters were more likely to cast ballots to express opposition to Obama than to support him. More than a third said their House votes were anti-Obama; about a quarter said the were pro-Obama.
Retiree Arthur Fisher of San Antonio, Texas, says he usually votes Democratic but this time split his ballot to send a message: "There's too much spending, the economy is not getting better. There's too many empty promises."
Almost half of voters said Obama's health care overhaul should be repealed. Only a third thought the stimulus package he championed helped the economy. Most felt government is trying to do too much.
Among independents, 6 out of 10 disapproved of the job Obama's doing. Independent voters, who favored Democrats in 2006 and 2008, moved decisively to the GOP this time.
The votes of women - who typically lean Democratic and are vital to the party's fortunes - were roughly split between the parties in this midterm year, exit polls show. Men favored Republican candidates even more decisively than in recent elections.
Suburban voters also threw support to Republican House candidates, after splitting their vote between the parties in the last two elections.
The Economy Gets Top Billing
Across the electorate, the economy eclipsed all other issues.
Almost everyone surveyed - nearly 90% - was anxious about the direction the economy will take over the next year. Half were "very worried."
Almost a third of voters said someone in their household lost a job sometime in the past two years.
Still, a solid majority said their own family's financial situation was the same or better than in 2008, when a recession-battered nation swept Obama into office and strengthened the Democrats' congressional majorities. Democratic congressional candidates held an edge among those economic survivors.
But the 4 out of 10 voters who said their families are worse off now resoundingly voted Republican.
Despite complaints about Obama's presidency, only a quarter of voters blamed him for the scary economy. Voters were more likely to point the finger at Wall Street bankers, followed by former President George W. Bush.
"We were definitely dipping down long before Barack ever came into office," said Steve Wise, 28, a teacher voting mostly Democratic in Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood. "If anything, he righted the ship and started bringing us back up."
Asked about Obama's policies overall, about half of voters predicted they would hurt the country, and only 40% thought they would help. Even women, who were a key to Obama's election, were divided on his policies - a troubling sign for Democrats.
Democrats Lose Women's Vote
A strong majority of women voted for Democrats in 2006, propelling their takeover of Congress that year, and again in 2008 when Obama won the White House.
Even in 1994, when Republicans won control of Congress, women favored Democrats, although by a smaller margin of 5 percentage points.
This year women voiced economic fears as stark as men's, and they declined to lean Democratic in their House votes, exit polls say.
Joanne Sysack of the Cleveland suburb of Parma Heights, Ohio, said she would feel better about the economy with Republican lawmakers in power.
"I think they are more pro-business, and business is the ones that provide the jobs," said Sysack, 67, a nurse-attorney.
Other Demographics Stay Loyal
Voters in other, smaller demographic groups essential to the Democrats did stick by them, including blacks, young people, households with union members, and voters with family incomes under $50,000. Hispanics favored Democrats over Republicans about 2-to-1. In contrast, nearly 6 out of 10 whites backed Republicans.
Those who called themselves tea party supporters resoundingly voted Republican. Almost all of them want Congress to repeal the new health care law. They also were focused on reducing the budget deficit, followed by cutting taxes.
The number of voters who consider themselves "conservative" jumped to about 40% - twice the number of liberals.
Voters who said they cast ballots for Obama in 2008 mostly stayed with the Democrats on Tuesday, back the president on the economic stimulus package and would like to see even more done to improve the nation's health care.
The preliminary results are from interviews that Edison Research conducted for The Associated Press and television networks with more than 17,580 voters nationwide. This included 15,988 interviews Tuesday in a random sample of 268 precincts nationally. In addition, landline and cellular telephone interviews were conducted Oct. 22-31 with 1,601 people who voted early or absentee. There is a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1 percentage point for the entire sample, higher for subgroups.