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Poll: Voters less pessimistic than 2008, but unhappier than 2006

By Rebecca Sinderbrand, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mood of voters improves from two years ago
  • Unemployment is the biggest concern
  • Voters blame Wall Street, Bush and Obama for economy

(CNN) -- Voters this year may be more anxious than angry.

Just 35 percent think the country's on the right track, according to exit polls Tuesday night, to 62 percent who think things are heading in the wrong direction.

Voters aren't quite as pessimistic as they were just two years ago, when those numbers were 21 and 74 percent -- but they're unhappier than they were back in 2006, when 41 percent felt the nation was on the right track, to 55 percent who said they were headed in the wrong direction.

The economy wasn't just the most important issue to voters this year -- with unemployment hovering around 9.6 percent, it was roughly twice as important to them as the other top issues of concern combined.

Sixty-two percent of voters named the economy as their most important issue this year. Health care ranked a distant second, at 19 percent, with illegal immigration and Afghanistan trailing at 8 and 7 percent.

With the exception of the 3 percent of voters who said the economy's doing just fine, most of those polled -- on either end of the political spectrum -- think the economy's ailing. But who's to blame? Thirty-five percent of voters in early exit polls say Wall Street's the villain. The next name on the list: former President Bush -- 29 percent point their fingers in his direction. President Obama follows, at 24 percent.

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They may not blame him for the state of the economy, but just 45 of voters in early exit poll results are happy with Obama's performance, while 54 percent disapprove. That's the same territory President Clinton's numbers were in back in 1994 exit polls, when 44 percent of voters approved of the job he was doing, while 52 percent were unhappy. Back in 2006, the same numbers for President Bush were 43 and 57 percent.

The rest of the federal government isn't off the hook -- voters in both parties are upset with how activist the government's been: 4 in 5 Republicans say it's doing too much. And 2 in 3 Democrats say it isn't doing enough. Sixty-one percent of Democrats say the new health care law needs to be expanded. And 82 percent of Republicans say it should be repealed.

Today's result is all about who showed up...and who didn't. Independents made up about a third of the electorate today -- and they broke big for Republicans. Democrats are barely holding on to their advantage among women -- but men have turned Republican by a wide margin. (In Florida, they broke big for Senate candidate Marco Rubio, giving him half the independent vote in a three-way race.)

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Two-thirds of Hispanic voters, 6 in 10 young voters and the overwhelming share of black voters backed Democrats. There just aren't as many of them as there were last cycle, as a percentage of the total vote: The percentage of youth voters dropped by half in early exit polls, from 18 to 9. The black vote also edged down by at least a fifth.

Midterm voters tend to be older than voters in general. But this year's midterm voters weren't just older than the voters who show up when the White House is up for grabs. They're older than a typical midterm voter. In fact: Seniors haven't made up this big a share of voters since 1994.

Twenty-four percent of those who cast ballots this year were over the age of 65 -- and their support for Democrats has plummeted. Back in '94, 48 percent of voters over age 65 backed Democratic candidates. In 2006 and '08, 49 percent supported the party. This year, that number sank to 39 percent.

And older voters -- who aren't fans of the health care bill -- have discovered a new-found fondness for the GOP: the Republican Party's share of the senior vote soared from 48 percent last cycle to 58 percent this year.

How much credit should the Tea Party take for tonight's GOP gains? Exit polls paint a mixed picture.

Forty-five percent of independent voters expressed support for the movement, which is 4 for 6 in Senate races so far tonight, with two still too close to call. The older you are, the polls suggest, the more likely you are to back the Tea Party -- and tonight was a senior moment. Forty-seven percent of those 60 and older back the Tea Party; the number for 18-29-year-olds was more than 20 points lower.

On the other hand: A majority of voters (56 percent) said the Tea Party wasn't a factor in their vote tonight. The percentage that said they wanted to send a message in favor of the movement (23 percent) was just a few points higher than those who said they were trying to strike a blow against it (18 percent).

Republicans are on track for the biggest House pickup by any major party since 1948 -- a historic win. Voters clearly aren't too happy with the Democratic Party. But exit polls suggest they aren't terribly thrilled with the GOP either.

Democrats have a 10-point favorability gap: 43 percent of voters have a positive opinion of the party, while 53 percent aren't thrilled. The Republican Party also gets a thumbs-down from 53 percent of the nation's voters, with just 41 percent saying they're happy with the party.

Compare that with 1994 and 2006, when voters had a net positive view of the incoming party. The numbers suggest Tuesday night may signal a rejection of the Democratic Party -- but something less than an embrace of the GOP.