Why were the midterm elections close? Exit polls offer clues.


A set of countervailing political forces may have contributed to the proximity of this year’s midterm elections, according to current results from the national exit poll conducted for CNN and other news networks by Edison Research. It remains unclear which party will control the Senate or House of Representatives next year, with votes still being counted and key races too soon to be called.

Voters were largely unhappy with the state of the nation, the economy and President Joe Biden, the exit poll found – the kind of political environment that traditionally leads to a midterm backlash against the party in the White House. But other factors, including views on abortion and Biden’s predecessor, may have helped keep Democrats competitive across the country.

About three-quarters of voters said they were dissatisfied or angry about the way things are going in the United States, and a similar share called the economy not so good or bad. Biden’s approval rating was underwater among the electorate, with only about 44% of voters approving and about 55% disapproving – about 45% said they strongly disapproved. Voters were more likely to say Biden’s policies had hurt rather than helped the country, and more likely to say their vote was to oppose Biden than to say he supported him.

A slim majority of voters, about 31%, named inflation their biggest problem, and about 8 in 10 said inflation had been a hardship for them personally. By a margin of about 12 points, voters said they trusted the GOP rather than the Democratic Party to manage inflation.

But the election’s apparent proximity suggests the midterm elections weren’t just a referendum on an unpopular president or a reaction to gloomy views on the economy. The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade put abortion front and center, with about 27% of voters calling it their number one issue. About 6 in 10 voters felt negatively about the decision, with nearly 4 in 10 expressing anger. The Democrats had a roughly 11-point advantage over the GOP when it came to which party voters trusted most to handle abortion-related issues.

Interactive: Anatomy of a Close Election: How Americans Voted in 2022 vs. 2018

And former President Donald Trump was on voters’ minds almost as much as the incumbent. About 28% of voters said they intended to vote to express their opposition to him, only a few points lower than about a third who said they were expressing their opposition to Biden.

Neither party had an image advantage with voters. About 4 in 10 voters had a favorable opinion only of the Democratic Party, with roughly the same share having a favorable opinion only of the Republican Party, and about 11% had no favorable opinion of any party. Similar shares of voters thought only Democrats were too extreme (about 38%) or only Republicans were too extreme (about 39%). About 13% called both parties too extreme and the rest said neither was. Voters also held sharply negative ratings of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, though fewer expressed an opinion on McCarthy.

There was a significant partisan divide in voter priorities and attitudes this year. About 45% of voters who supported a GOP House candidate named inflation their top issue on a list of five, with 15% choosing immigration and less than 15% choosing any other issue as a priority. Among voters who supported a Democratic candidate, about 43% named abortion their top issue, with 18% choosing inflation and less than 15% choosing another issue.

Even at the individual level, many voters balanced multiple and sometimes competing priorities. About 45% of voters said both that inflation had given their family a hard time and that they were unhappy or angry that Roe v. Wade. A tenth of voters trusted Democrats more to handle abortion, but Republicans more to handle inflation.

Nor were specific issues the only consideration. In exit polls in nine states with key Senate elections, more than 70% of voters rated party control of the Senate as very important to their vote. Asked which attributes of the candidates mattered most to them, voters in most of these states were narrowly divided on whether they prioritized choosing a candidate who shared their values ​​or a candidate who shared their values. who demonstrated honesty and integrity – less saying they were looking for candidates who cared about people like them, or who had the right experience.

The strength of individual candidates likely helped Democratic candidates in some Senate and gubernatorial races win over some voters who were disappointed with the Democratic president. In New Hampshire, for example, Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan retained her seat by winning nearly all voters who endorsed Biden, as well as about a fifth of those who disapproved. In the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, projected Democratic winner Josh Shapiro picked up about a quarter of Commonwealth voters who disapproved of Biden. In a number of races, Democratic candidates won outright among voters who somewhat disapproved of Biden.

The 2022 exit polls include interviews with thousands of voters, both those who voted on Election Day and those who voted early or absent. This scope makes it a powerful tool for understanding the demographics and political views of voters in this year’s election. And their conclusions will ultimately be weighed against the ultimate benchmark: the election results themselves. Even so, exit polls are still polls, with margins of error — meaning they are most useful when treated as estimates rather than precise measurements. This is especially true before the exit numbers from the polls are adjusted to match the final election results.

CNN’s exit polls are a combination of in-person interviews with Election Day voters and in-person interviews, telephone and online polls measuring the opinions of early and absentee voters via email. They were conducted by Edison Research on behalf of the National Election Pool. In-person polling day interviews were conducted in a random sample of 241 polling stations. The results also include interviews with early and absentee voters conducted in person at 72 early voting locations, by phone or online. Results for the full sample of 18,571 respondents have a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points; it is larger for subgroups.

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