Two-thirds of Americans say issue is top priority

WASHINGTON — A scary economy isn’t the only fear voters carried to the polls Tuesday. Two-thirds fret about how to pay for health care and at least as many worry that terrorists will attack the U.S. again.

Still, the economy weighed heaviest on their minds. Six in 10 voters picked it as the most important issue facing the nation, according to preliminary polling. None of the four other issues listed by exit pollsters – energy, Iraq, terrorism and health care – was picked by more than one in 10 people.

Almost everyone agreed the economy’s condition is either “poor” or “not good.” And more than eight in 10 said they were worried about the economy’s direction over the next year.

Half of voters said they’re very worried the current economic crisis will harm their families, and another third were somewhat worried about that. One reason: about two-thirds of voters have stock market investments, such as retirement funds.

Yet there was room for optimism – nearly half predict the economy will get better over the next year.

In a historic year, when Democrat Barack Obama is the first black major-party candidate for president, nine out of 10 voters said the race of the candidates wasn’t important to their votes. Almost as many said age wasn’t important, a nod to 72-year-old Republican John McCain.

Obama has courted new voters, and there were plenty who turned out. One in 10 voters said they were voting for the first time, and they were disproportionately young and nonwhite, groups that have tended to favor Obama. Six in 10 first-time voters were under age 30. One in five new voters were black and about as many were Hispanic.

“All my buddies told me to vote for Obama,” said Andrew Greenaway, 18, a Cleveland State University student who said he didn’t follow the campaigns but was swayed by all “the buzz” in his dorm.

About a third of voters said the quality that mattered most was the candidates’ ability to bring about change – the mantra of Obama’s campaign – while a fifth focused on the candidates’ experience, McCain’s strong point.

“I don’t think Obama knows what he’s doing,” said Craig Burnett, 55, a Republican in Hagerstown, Md. “He’s too young and inexperienced.”

More than half strongly disapproved of the way President Bush has handled the job.

The results were from exit polling by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for The Associated Press and television networks conducted in 300 precincts nationally. The preliminary data was based on 10,747 voters, including telephone polling of 2,407 people who voted early, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1 percentage point for the entire sample, smaller for subgroups.

Preliminary results from a national Associated Press exit poll of voters in Tuesday’s elections:

THE ECONOMY DOMINATES

Six in 10 voters picked the economy as the most important issue facing the nation. None of four other issues on the list – energy, Iraq, terrorism and health care – was picked by more than one in 10.

Not surprisingly, voters also have a very sour view of the condition of the nation’s economy. About half said it’s poor and nearly all the rest said it’s not good.

At least four in 10 said their family’s financial situation has gotten worse in the past four years. A third said it’s about the same and about a quarter said it’s gotten better.

Looking ahead, half of voters said they’re very worried the current economic crisis will harm their family’s finances over the next year and another third were somewhat worried about that. But nearly half said they think the nation’s economy will get better over the next year.

OTHER WORRIES

Two-thirds of voters said they’re worried about being able to afford the health care they need. And at least as many said they worried there will be another terrorist attack in the United States.

NEW VOTERS

One in 10 voters said they were voting this year for the first time, and that group was disproportionately young and nonwhite. Six in 10 of those voters were under age 30. One in five new voters were black and about as many were Hispanic. A quarter of new voters said they don’t have landline phones at home, only cell phones.

BUSH AND CONGRESS

As they have in pre-election polls, President Bush and Congress get low marks from voters. Only about one in five approve of how Bush is handling his job, and Congress fared no better.

CANDIDATES’ QUALITIES

More than a third of voters said they most wanted a candidate who would bring change to Washington, while nearly as many said they wanted one who shares their values. About one in five were looking mostly for experience, while a smaller portion were seeking a candidate who cares about people like them.

OTHER ISSUES

Six in 10 voters said future appointments to the Supreme Court were an important factor in their vote.

Two-thirds favor drilling for oil offshore in U.S. waters where it is not allowed now.

More than half oppose the $700 billion government plan to help failing financial companies.

DEMOGRAPHICS

As usual, women were a little more numerous than men in the electorate.

About one in seven voters were under age 30 and as many were over 65.

A third reported household income of less than $50,000; a quarter had income of more than $100,000.

One in five had no more than a high school diploma; nearly half had a college degree.

One in four voters were white born-again evangelical Christians.

Nearly half of voters have a gun in their household.

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