WASHINGTON -- 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 that there's still a long way to go. Voters 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.
In a much tighter race than the one that swept Mr. Obama into the White House, the poll showed him again leading among his key demographics of women, young people, blacks and Hispanics.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney was strongly favored by men, whites and those with family incomes of $50,000 or more. He was doing a little better among these critical groups than Arizona Sen. John McCain did four years ago, and also echoed Mr. McCain's lead among seniors.
Only a fourth of voters thought they were better off financially than four years ago, when Mr. Obama was elected amidst the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Voters were most likely to say their families were doing about the same, and Mr. Obama led among that group. A third felt worse off, and they were voting heavily for Mr. Romney.
The survey of voters as they left polling places showed 6 in 10 ranked the economy as the top issue, way 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 Mr. Obama for the nation's economic woes, and almost all of them voted for Mr. Romney.
Voters 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.
Joseph Neat, a stay-at-home father in Hagerstown, Md., said Mr. Obama hasn't solved the problems that are hurting families like his, especially gasoline prices that Mr. Neat called "insane." Of Mr. Obama, he said: "We don't have time for him to make changes. We need the changes now. And four years is plenty of time."
Overall, slightly more than half of voters thought the nation was seriously off on the wrong track instead of going in the right direction -- usually a bad sign for an incumbent. Three-fourths said the economy is poor or not so good, and they mostly backed Mr. Romney. Still, many voters such as William Mullins of Lansing, Mich., felt that Mr. Obama needed more time to fix things.
"Obama had a lot to deal with when he came to office," Mr. Mullins said. "You can't change everything overnight."
Only a quarter of voters were feeling enthusiastic about Mr. Obama's administration; at least as many were angry about it.
Mr. Romney's voters were a bit more likely to say they had reservations about their man; about a fourth felt that way. Overall, most voters felt strongly about their choice, however, with Mr. Obama's supporters somewhat more enthusiastic.
The presidential campaign grew bitterly negative at times, but on Election Day, voters didn't dwell on that: Just 1 in 10 said they were primarily voting against the other guy.
About half said government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals, a point Mr. Romney hammered 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 Mr. Romney.
The Obama campaign's insistence that multimillionaire Mr. Romney would do more for well-heeled Americans seems to have taken hold in many voters' minds. Half said they think the former Massachusetts governor's policies generally favor the rich and barely any thought that 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 Mr. Obama, who has pushed higher taxes for the wealthy, favors rich Americans. The biggest group -- 4 in 10 -- said Mr. Obama's policies help the middle class, with the poor coming in second.
Voters tended to think the U.S. economic system as a whole favors the wealthy. About half said taxes should be raised on income above $250,000 per year, as Mr. Obama wants. Yet voters gave a resounding "no" when asked whether they wanted taxes raised to help cut the spiraling budget deficit.
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 has been neck-and-neck for months, about 1 in 10 voters said they had only settled on their presidential choice within the last few days, or even on Election Day. They were closely divided between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney.
The survey of 23,467 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.