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2014 Midterm Elections: Why Republicans may have had an edge

By Monika McDermott and Stanley Feldman

The House Vote

While the GOP came out on top in today's national vote, there was good news and bad news for both parties, relatively speaking, in today's election according to CBS News exit polls. Overall, the Republicans' advantages abounded. Concerns about terrorism, health care and the economy all provided them with a national vote edge. Among the nearly half of voters who said the health care law went too far, 83 percent supported Republican candidates. Those who were worried about terrorism--71 percent of voters--also gave GOP candidates a boost of 58 percent to 40 percent for Democrats.

While the news was not exactly positive for Democrats in terms of the national vote, it was certainly better news than they received on election night in 2010, the last midterm election. While the national electorate looked very similar, demographically, to the 2010 electorate, Democrats made marginal gains among some of their traditional support groups including women (5 points), Latinos (4 points), and the western United States (4 points). Democrats also did 6 points better among independents than they did in 2010, although they still lost this critical group by 10 points this year.

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Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Flawn Academic Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus Nov. 4, 2014 in Austin, Texas. Tamir Kalifa, AP

Neither party can come away from today completely happy. Both suffer from low brand images at the moment. Fifty-three percent of voters said they have an unfavorable image of the Democratic Party, and a statistically equal 54 percent said they view the GOP unfavorably. The parties' leaders fare no better. One-third of voters said they are disappointed with the Obama administration and another quarter said they are angry, for a total of 59 percent who view the administration negatively. Republicans in Congress are in a similarly bad situation as 37 percent of voters said they are disappointed in GOP congressional leaders, and an additional 23 percent expressed anger at them.

The Economy

Voters going to the polls today were very pessimistic about the state of the U.S. economy according to the exit poll results. Seventy-one percent of voters in the exit poll said that economy is not so good or poor. And 78 percent were very or somewhat worried about the future direction of the economy. Despite improving unemployment statistics and recent evidence of economic growth, only 33 percent of voters believe that the economy is getting better. Perhaps the best indicator of this deep-seated pessimism is that almost half of all voters expect life for the next generation of Americans to be worse than it is today; only 22 percent think it will be better. The picture does not look any better at the personal level as only 28 percent of voters said that their family's financial situation was better than two years ago; almost as many, 25 percent, said it was worse.

These negative assessments of the economy worked to the benefit of Republican congressional candidates. In House races nationally, Republicans got 63 percent of the votes of those who said the economy was not so good or poor and three-quarters of the votes of those who said the economy is getting worse. Two-thirds of voters who said their family's financial situation had gotten worse voted for Republican candidates.

This pessimism about the state of the economy also appears to be strongly affecting Americans' views of the direction of the country as a whole. Almost two-thirds of voters said that they think things in this country are seriously off on the wrong track. This wrong track number has increased since the 2010 midterm elections (by 7 points) and even more so from 2012 (10 points), despite some evidence of improvement in major economic indicators. Voters do not appear to be seeing the same positive signs that many economists do. As with the economy, those concerned about the direction of the country voted overwhelmingly for Republicans in House elections.

These economic concerns also created serious headwinds for Democratic senate candidates. In North Carolina, where Democrat Kay Hagan lost a close race to Republican Thom Tillis, the exit poll showed that two-thirds of voters said the country is off on the wrong track, and Tillis won two-thirds of those voters. And in New Hampshire, where incumbent Senator Jean Shaheen won a closely fought race against Republican Scott Brown, a large majority of voters believed the economy is not so good or poor. Shaheen did win almost 40% of those voters, just enough for victory.

The Obama Effect

For all of the predictions that Mr. Obama would be the key factor in elections across the country today, much of the American public seemed to feel otherwise. Forty-six percent of voters said that Obama was not a factor in their vote for the U.S. House today, compared to 39 percent who said President George W. Bush was not a factor in their votes in 2006, at the same point in his presidency. At the same time, those who were voting based on Mr. Obama were far more likely to be doing so negatively than positively. One-third of voters said their vote was in opposition to the president, and only 20 percent said their vote was in part to show support of the president. (Mr. Bush's numbers were 36 percent and 22 percent respectively in 2006.)

Obama returns home to Chicago to rally Democrats for Pat Quinn

Issues important to President Obama's tenure in office were key in determining his influence in the election. The economy, as well as playing a role overall, also played a role in the extent to which voters considered Mr. Obama in their choices. Among the third of voters who feel the economy is doing worse, 55 percent were voting in opposition to the president. Health care played a similar role: 47 percent of voters said that the health care law went too far, and among these voters 57 percent were voting, at least in part, as a gesture against Mr. Obama. He was also the clear target of those concerned with illegal immigration. While only 14 percent of voters nationally chose immigration as their top issue, those who did considered the President a negative influence in their vote at 56 percent.

The extent to which voters were considering Mr. Obama in their vote varied from state to state in some of the most important senate races. In Colorado's hot contest, for example, a full 57 percent of voters said that the president was not a factor in their vote, as did half of New Hampshire voters and 51 percent of Iowa's voters. In Louisiana, on the other hand, only 36 percent of voters said Mr. Obama was not a factor, while a relatively high 43 percent cited him as a negative factor.

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The National Election Pool Exit Poll was conducted by Edison Research. In the United States, 18,937 voters who cast ballots on Election Day were interviewed at 281 polling places as they exited the polling places. Additionally, 3113 absentee and/or early voters were interviewed in a pre-election telephone poll. The margin of error for the national survey is +/- 2 percentage points. The National Election Pool members (ABC, AP, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC) prepared the questionnaire.

Stanley Feldman is Professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University, and Monika L. McDermott is Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University.

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