WASHINGTON (AP) â€” Rising prices and chronic unemployment were heavy on the minds of voters Tuesday even as a glimmer of optimism peeked through. Four in 10 said the nation's battered economy is getting better.
Most everyone agreed there's still far to go. They were less likely to blame President Barack Obama for the economic troubles, however, than to point the finger at his predecessor, George W. Bush, according to preliminary results of a national exit poll.
Only a fourth thought they were better off financially than four years ago when Obama was elected. Voters were most likely to say their families were doing about the same. A third felt worse off.
The survey of voters as they left polling places showed 6 in 10 ranked the economy the top issue, far ahead of health care, the federal budget deficit or foreign policy. The majority who don't yet see economic improvement were roughly divided over whether things were getting even worse or just stuck in place.
About 4 in 10 blamed Obama for the nation's economic woes.
Joseph Neat, a stay-at-home father in Hagerstown, Md., said he voted for Republican Mitt Romney because Obama hasn't solved the problems hurting families like his, especially gasoline prices that he called "insane."
"We don't have time for him to make changes. We need the changes now," Neat said of Obama. "And four years is plenty of time."
Three-fourths of voters said the economy is poor or not so good. But many like William Mullins of Lansing, Mich., felt Obama inherited the problems.
"Obama had a lot to deal with when he came to office," Mullins said. "You can't change everything overnight."
They pointed to years of high unemployment and rising prices as the biggest troubles for people like them; those two worries far outstripped concerns about the housing market or taxes in the exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks.
Only a quarter of voters were feeling enthusiastic about Obama's administration; about as many said they're angry about it.
About half said government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals, a point hammered by Romney throughout the campaign. Only 4 in 10 wanted government to do more.
"I haven't had a raise in two years because of Obama's anti-business policies," said Ken Keller, a Schaumburg, Ill., engineer who voted for Romney.
But voters were more likely to say Obama stands for the middle class or the poor. The Obama campaign's insistence that the multimillionaire Romney would do more for well-heeled Americans seems to have taken hold in voters' minds.
Half of voters said they think the former Massachusetts governor's policies generally favor the rich and barely any thought he favors the poor.
"I don't think Romney understands people who are down and out," said Cari Herling, an insurance analyst from Sun Prairie, Wis.
In contrast, only about 1 in 10 said Obama, who has pushed higher taxes for the wealthy, favors rich Americans. About half of voters said taxes should be raised on income over $250,000 per year.
For Obama, the biggest group â€” 4 in 10 â€” said his policies help the middle class, with the poor coming in a close second.
Voters tended to think the U.S. economic system as a whole generally favors the wealthy.
Nearly two-thirds of voters said they thought illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status, instead of being deported.
In a race that's been neck-and-neck for months, about 1 in 10 voters said they'd only settled on their presidential choice within the last few days or even on Election Day.
The survey of 19,728 voters was conducted for the AP and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results from interviews conducted as voters left a random sample of 350 precincts nationally Tuesday, as well as 4,389 who voted early or absentee and were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Oct. 29 through Nov. 4. Results for the full sample were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.