WASHINGTON — Voters were intensely worried about the future of the economy and unhappy with the way President Barack Obama and Congress have been running things.
A strong vein of disappointment ran throughout demographic groups, landing heavily on Democrats.
Women — who typically lean Democratic and are vital to the party's fortunes — split their House votes, according to preliminary exit poll results. Men favored Republican candidates.
The tea party made a splash in its first election. About four out of 10 voters endorsed the movement. While a majority of voters said the tea party was not a factor in their House vote, those who did use their ballots to send a message about the tea party were slightly more likely to say they were signaling support of tea partiers than opposition to the movement.
In contrast, voters were more likely to say they were casting votes to express opposition to Obama than to support him. Six out of 10 independent voters disapproved of the job he's doing.
Voters overall didn't hold a favorable view of either the Republican or Democratic parties. Overwhelmingly, people at the polls were dissatisfied with the way the federal government is working, and a fourth said they're angry about it.
"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.
The economy eclipsed all other issues.
Almost everyone surveyed — more than 80 percent — expressed worry about the direction the economy will take over the next year. Still, a majority said their own family's financial situation was the same or better than two years ago, when a recession-plagued nation swept Obama into office and strengthened the Democrats' congressional majorities.
The four out of 10 voters who said things for their families are worse now favored Republican House candidates.
About a third of voters said their household suffered a job loss in the past two years. Those setbacks didn't give their votes a clear direction — the group divided over which party to support in House races.
Only about a quarter of voters blamed Obama for the nation's economic troubles. Voters overall were more likely to point the finger at Wall Street bankers.
"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."
Yet, asked about Obama's policies overall, about half of voters predicted he would hurt the country. Even women were divided on Obama's policy — a troubling sign for Democrats.
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 took over Congress, women favored Democrats, although by a smaller margin of 5 percentage points.
This year women, whose economic fears were as stark as male voters', didn't lean Democratic, exit polls say.Comment on this story
Voters in other, smaller demographic groups essential to the Democrats stuck by them, including blacks and young people. Hispanics favored the Democrats over Republicans about 2-to-1.
Those who called themselves tea party supporters overwhelmingly 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.
In contrast, voters who cast ballots for Obama in 2008 mostly stuck by the Democrats and still back the president on health care and the economic stimulus package.
The preliminary results are from interviews that Edison Research conducted for The Associated Press and television networks with more than 12,800 voters nationwide. This included 11,231 interviews Tuesday in a random sample of 268 precincts nationally. In addition, landline and cellular telephone interviews were conducted Oct. 22 to 31 with 1,601 people who voted early or absentee. There is a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1 percentage points for the entire sample, higher for subgroups.