Exit polls are important because they look at actual voters, and the choice that they made. As the name suggests, exit polls are those that take place right after voting, in contrast to the barrage of polls that took place for the past year. Here, we will concentrate on the issues that were important to voters; we can then see how these issues helped frame people’s decisions. Hopefully, these polls will help our understanding of the issues that played a part in the voters’ choices.

What will be presented here is a table that looks at the issues that voters claim were most important to them, in the 2012 and 2010 elections. The comparison will be from the Wall Street Journal Exit Polls. The table will show the percentage of respondents who said that that issue was most important to them, and whether they supported the Republicans or the Democrats. Comparing these two elections is important since 2010 was a disaster for Democrats, much as the election this month was a catastrophe for the GOP.

Comparing 2012 and 2010 Exit Polls: Issues and Vote Choice
Issue 2012 Most Important Issue 2012 Mitt Romney (R) 2012 Barack Obama (D) 2010 Most Important Issue 2010 Republican (R) 2010 Democratic (D)
Economy 59% 51% 47% 62% 53% 45%

Health Care 18% 24% 75% 18% 45% 54%

Federal Deficit 15% 65% 32%
Foreign Policy 5% 33% 56%
Illegal Immigration 8% 68% 28%

Afghanistan 8% 41% 57%

Here is how to interpret this table. For example, in 2012, 59% of respondents stated that the economy was their most important issue; of these, 51% voted for Romney, while 47% voted for Obama. In 2010, 62% said that the economy was their most important issue; of these, 53% voted for the GOP, while 45% voted for the Democrats. So, in both elections, by a wide margin, the economy was the most important issue by far. This is not unusual. In most elections, assuming that we’re not at war, or there is not some other kind of external threat (like 9/11), the economy is the default most important issue.

If an issue only shows up in 2012 or 2010, that means that the issue was cited as the most important one in that election but not the other. So, in 2010, illegal immigration was listed by 8% of voters as most important (with 68% voting Republican); in 2012, it was off the voters’ radar. When this happens, it usually means that one party has emphasized that issue in an election, but chose not to pay attention to it in the next.

When we compare the two polls, we see that voters’ attitudes towards health care was much different in the two elections. The GOP lost much of their support on this issue, moving from 45% to 24%. I’d guess that this is due to the different electorates in the two elections. We also can see that illegal immigration was an important issue in 2010, but not this year. It’s also easy to see that the budget deficit was important in 2012, but not in 2010. These are good examples of how issues that are emphasized by a political party become important to people’s vote choice.

Now, let’s look at the 2012 exit poll exclusively. Romney won on the economy, yet lost the election. The Democrats just had too big of an advantage on health care.

One last point…There is no claim that voters always vote on issues; only a subset of them make their decision based upon them. Many voters determine which party fits their ideology and don’t pay much attention to specific issues. Others vote for a political party and just put aside their attitudes towards a specific issue (consider pro-choice Republicans or pro-life Democrats, for example).

In another post, I’ll examine the demographic differences in the 2012 and 2010 elections.