How Obama won in a weak economy: Voters didn't blame him

The economy was the big issue in the election, and Mitt Romney saw its poor condition as a point of vulnerability for Obama. But in exit polls, only 38 percent of voters blamed the president.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
This Nov. 7 photo shows President Obama speaking at his election night party in Chicago.

A number of factors are winning attention as important to President Obama’s reelection win, among them the Latino vote, a surge in young voters’ share of the electorate, and a surprise no-show by many white voters whom Republicans were counting on.

Here’s one more teensy little thing that might be added to the list: the economy.

A large majority of voters cited this as the top national issue, and the nation’s historically high unemployment rate was the big vulnerability that challenger Mitt Romney hoped to use as a lever to pry Mr. Obama out of office.

But the economy has also been slowly improving, and in the end Obama’s Republican rival couldn’t gain the leverage he hoped for.

Here are some nuggets of insight that voters provided in exit polls Tuesday, which tell the story:

• Even though three-fourths of voters see the state of the economy as “not so good” or poor, they didn't hold Obama as primarily to blame, The Washington Post reports. When asked if they assigned blame more to Obama or to President Bush, only 38 percent of voters said they saw Obama as responsible for current conditions.

In essence, many voters didn’t buy Mr. Romney’s argument that poor stewardship since 2008 has cost the economy millions of jobs. This helps explain other findings below.

• Among the voters who said their own financial situation is “about the same” as four years ago, 6 in 10 went for Obama. That helped him overcome the hurdle that one-third of Americans say they are worse off than four years ago, compared with only one-fourth who say they’re better off.

• The 59 percent of Americans who cited the economy as their top issue didn’t swing heavily for Romney, according to exit polling conducted by the Post with other news organizations. Rather, they split their votes roughly down the middle, 51 percent for Romney and 47 percent for Obama.

Yes, the president’s margin of victory came from voters with other top priorities (health care leading the way). But to some degree he fended off the characterization that he failed on the issue Americans care most about. Helping Obama in this corner is that unemployment, while high at 7.9 percent, has fallen from a peak of 10.1 percent early in his term.

• Despite holding his own against Romney, the president can’t exactly claim a big mandate when it comes to economic policies. Among the 77 percent of voters who say the economy is “not so good” or poor, 6 in 10 voted for Romney. Obama’s winning margin came from within the smaller group of voters who see the current economy as excellent or good.

• People with an income below $50,000 voted Democratic again. Six in 10 of them supported Obama, the same as in 2008. But this group also made up a larger share of the electorate, 41 percent this year versus 38 percent four years ago.

• Obama’s support among people with an income between $50,000 and $99,999 fell a bit (to a 46 percent share of their votes). But this group declined from 36 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 31 percent in 2012.

• Obama also lost ground among upper-income households ($100,000 or higher) compared with 2008, but he still won 44 percent of their votes. Their share of the electorate edged up slightly, to 28 percent.

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