Voters were intensely worried about the future of the economy and unhappy with the way President Barack Obama and Congress have been running things. The tide of dismay rolled through groups that can swing elections—women, independents, suburbanites—and turned more of them toward Republicans.
Those who went to polls Tuesday seemed annoyed with all things Washington, rating neither the Republicans nor the Democrats favorably.
Overwhelmingly, they were dissatisfied with the way the federal government is working, and a fourth said they're angry about it, according to preliminary exit poll results.
"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.
Tapping into the grim national mood, the tea party made a splash. About four 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.
Almost half of voters said Obama's health care overhaul should be repealed. Only a third thought the stimulus package he has championed helped the economy. And a majority felt government is trying to do too much.
Among independents, six out of 10 disapproved of the job Obama's doing. This group, which favored Democrats in 2006 and 2008, moved decisively to the GOP this time.
Women—who typically lean Democratic and are vital to the party's fortunes—split their House votes 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.
Across the electorate, the economy eclipsed all other issues.
Almost everyone surveyed—nearly 90 percent—expressed worry about the direction the economy will take over the next year. About a third of voters said someone in their household lost a job sometime in the past two years.
Pointing Fingers at Wall Street
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 that majority of economic survivors.
But the four out of 10 voters who said their families are worse off now than in 2008 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.
"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."
The outcome of the midterm elections is also likely to have a significant impact on Wall Street, under new scrutiny this year as a result of regulatory reform legislation. Major companies affected by this legislation include Goldman Sachs , Morgan Stanley, Citigroup , Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase .
Asked about Obama's policies overall, about half of voters predicted they would hurt the country, and only 40 percent thought they would help. Even women, who were a key to Obama's election, were divided on his policies—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 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 didn't lean Democratic in their House votes, exit polls say.
Voters in other, smaller demographic groups essential to the Democrats did stick by them, including blacks, young people and households with union members. Hispanics favored Democrats over Republicans about 2-to-1. In contrast, six 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.
Voters who say 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 15,880 voters nationwide. This included 14,280 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.