Independents and people 65 and older are two pivotal voting blocs neither party can afford to lose. Right now, Democrats have alienated both.
As attention begins to shift to the 2012 presidential and congressional races, President Barack Obama and Democrats must figure out how to woo both groups back to avoid a replay of Tuesday's Republican triumph. Exit polls of voters in the congressional elections show the damage Democrats must repair — 56 percent of independents and 59 percent of seniors voted for Republican House candidates, with each delivering decisive margins of roughly 20 percentage points for the GOP.
For seniors, a group that takes voting seriously, Obama's health care overhaul legislation was a driving issue. Fifty-three percent said the measure should be repealed — and almost all of this group backed Republican House candidates on Election Day. Among all voters who are younger, 46 percent want the law revoked.
Voters over 65 were also the likeliest age group to consider themselves tea party supporters, with almost half — 49 percent — saying they back the conservative movement. Nine in 10 of them voted Republican on Tuesday.
Independents seemed especially upset with Obama and took it out on Democrats, voting Republican for the first time since 1998. Over half said the president's policies will hurt the country, and independents saying their vote represented opposition to Obama more than doubled those saying they were signaling support for him.
Independents were a bit likelier than all voters to say the government should intrude less on decisions by people and businesses. About 8 in 10 of them rated the government's performance negatively, somewhat more than voters did overall.
At a time when large numbers of voters are disaffected with American institutions, Republicans did a better job than Democrats of retaining the loyalties of people who could barely stand them.
Almost 1 in 4 votes for Republican candidates, or 23 percent, came from people who rate the GOP unfavorably. Democrats got about 1 in 8 votes, or 12 percent, from people who had negative views of that party.
Republicans were also likelier than Democrats to try flashing a message about Obama. About two-thirds of GOP voters said they considered their vote a show of opposition to Obama. Only half of Democrats considered their votes a message of support for the president.
More than 9 in 10 GOP voters gave the federal government negative grades — not a surprise for the party that has been out of power for two years. But the party that has run Washington since January 2009 wasn't warm and fuzzy about the government either. Just over half — 53 percent — of Democratic voters voiced dissatisfaction or anger about how the government is working.
More than 8 in 10 GOP voters said the government should intrude less in people's and businesses' decisions. About two-thirds of Democrats want it to do more to solve problems.
The two parties also showed differing priorities for the next two years.
Highlighting the country's split over Obama's health care overhaul, almost 8 in 10 Republican voters want to repeal the measure. A roughly equal share of Democrats want to expand it or leave it in place.
Almost 6 in 10 Democratic voters want Congress to focus first on spending to create jobs, making it easily their first priority. Tops for GOP voters: Nearly half want to cut the budget deficit.
Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters want to continue Bush-era tax cuts for everyone, including couples earning more than $250,000 yearly. Only about 1 in 8 Democrats favored that. More than three-quarters of them would rather let tax cuts expire for the rich but renew them for everyone else, or let them all lapse.
Where did Tuesday's votes come from? The two parties went about that differently, too.
More than a third of GOP votes came from the South, the most Republican-friendly region of the country by far. Democrats' votes came in near equal proportions from the East, Midwest, South and West.
Republican voters were divided 50-50 by gender. Women accounted for 56 percent of Democrats' votes.
The results are from a survey that Edison Research conducted for The Associated Press and television networks with 18,132 voters nationwide. This included interviews with 16,531 voters 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.
AP Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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