WASHINGTON — Rising prices and chronic unemployment were heavy on the minds of voters Tuesday even as a glimmer of optimism peeked through. Four in 10 said the nation’s battered economy is getting better, helping President Barack Obama win a second term.
Most everyone agreed the economy still has a long way to go. Voters were less likely to blame Obama for the economic troubles, however, than to point the finger at his predecessor, George W. Bush, according to early results of a national exit poll.
Slightly more than half blamed Bush, and they overwhelmingly supported Obama over his Republican rival Mitt Romney.
“Obama had a lot to deal with when he came to office,” said Lansing, Mich., voter William Mullins.
But the three-fourths of voters who said the economy is poor or not so good mostly backed Romney.
A majority — 54 percent — felt Obama was more in touch with people like them. The same percentage felt Romney’s policies favor the rich.
Working-class whites, a group both candidates pursued in battleground states including autoworker-heavy Ohio, were more pessimistic about the economy than other voters, and also more likely to blame Obama. That helped Romney build a bigger lead among this group than Republican John McCain garnered in 2008.
In a much tighter race than the one that swept Obama into the White House, the poll showed him again leading among his key demographics of women, young people, blacks and Hispanics.
Romney was strongly favored by men, whites and those with family incomes of $50,000 or more. He did a little better among these critical groups than McCain had and also echoed McCain’s lead among seniors.
Only a fourth of voters thought they were better off financially than four years ago when Obama was elected in the midst of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Voters were most likely to say their families were doing about the same — 4 in 10 thought so — and Obama led among that group.
The survey of voters as they left polling places showed 6 in 10 ranked the economy the top issue, dwarfing health care, the federal budget deficit or foreign policy. The majority who don’t yet see economic improvement were roughly divided over whether things were getting even worse or just stuck in place.
Voters pointed to years of high unemployment and rising prices as the biggest troubles for people like them; those two worries far outstripped concerns about the housing market or taxes in the exit polls conducted for The AP and TV networks.
Joseph Neat, a stay-at-home father in Hagerstown, Md., said Obama hasn’t solved the problems that are hurting families like his, especially gasoline prices that Neat called “insane.”
“We don’t have time for him to make changes. We need the changes now,” he said of Obama. “And four years is plenty of time.”
Overall, slightly more than half of voters thought the nation was seriously off on the wrong track instead of going in the right direction — usually a bad sign for an incumbent.
Only a quarter of voters were feeling enthusiastic about Obama’s administration; about a fifth were angry about it.
The presidential campaign grew bitterly negative at times, but on Election Day the voters didn’t dwell on that: Just 1 in 10 said they were primarily voting against the other guy.
Romney’s campaign against big government seemed to strike a chord. In preliminary results, a thin majority — 51 percent — said government is doing too many things that should be left to the private sector, while 43 percent wanted government to do more. It was a reversal from just four years ago, when voters were 51-43 in favor of more active government.
“I haven’t had a raise in two years because of Obama’s anti-business policies,” said Ken Keller, a Schaumburg, Ill., engineer who voted for Romney.
The Obama campaign’s insistence that the multimillionaire Romney would do more for well-heeled Americans seems to hit home with voters. Hardly anyone thought Romney’s policies favored the poor.
“I don’t think Romney understands people who are down and out,” said Cari Herling, an insurance analyst from Sun Prairie, Wis.
In contrast, 44 percent said Obama’s policies favor the middle class, with the poor coming in second and the wealthy last.
The voters seemed to reflect the anti-Wall Street protests and growing concerns about income inequality: 55 percent said the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy.
About half said taxes should be raised on income over $250,000 per year, as Obama wants.
In a race that’s been neck-and-neck for months, about 1 in 10 voters said they’d only settled on their presidential choice within the last few days or even on Election Day.
The survey of 25,565 voters was conducted for the AP and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results from interviews conducted as voters left a random sample of 350 precincts nationally Tuesday, as well as 4,389 who voted early or absentee and were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Oct. 29 through Nov. 4. Results for the full sample were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.