From one end of the country to another, voters yesterday offered a gloomy assessment of the national economy and the state of American politics. But in a year when the prominence of particular issues varied almost as wildly as the weather, peevish voters used their ballots to send mixed messages on issues like abortion, taxes and the environment.
Economic gloom helped the Democrats a great deal in some races but not in others. The abortion issue loomed large in several contests but played almost no role in many others.
And although the country faces the possibility of war in the Persian Gulf, the crisis appeared to play almost no direct role in yesterday's voting. Similarly, the savings and loan scandal, which once promised to be the lightning rod for voter discontent, appeared to have little influence on the outcome of key races.
One issue that did play a role in a number of races was taxes -- and voters' antipathy to them. From the New Jersey Senate race, where Sen. Bill Bradley (D) faced a much stiffer challenge than expected, to two governors races in the Plains states of Kansas and Nebraska, voters cast protest ballots against candidates identified directly or indirectly with tax increases.
The findings are based on an ABC News national telephone survey, exit polls conducted for major news organizations by Voter Research & Surveys, and voter interviews by Washington Post reporters in four key states.
The absence of a single dominant voting issue was demonstrated dramatically when voters in the four states -- North Carolina, Illinois, Massachusetts and California -- were asked to pick the issues that mattered the most to them.
In the North Carolina Senate race, voters said abortion and the federal budget mattered most. In the California governor's race, three issues vied for primacy: the environment, crime and drugs, and government ethics. In beleaguered Massachusetts, the condition of the state's economy and taxes overwhelmed all other concerns. In the Illinois Senate race, voters listed education as by far the most important issue.
Although President Bush made his Persian Gulf policy a central theme in his campaigning this fall, it never became part of the debate among candidates in most statewide races. In Illinois and North Carolina, for example, fewer than 5 percent of voters cited it as important in their decisions yesterday.
But if the issues at stake yesterday were varied, dissatisfaction with the status quo and its political stewards was clear.
"I'm sick to death of politicians who say what they have to say to get elected and do what they have to do to get elected," said June Frost, a Coral Gables, Fla., newsletter editor. "The country is sick of politicians and wants some courageous leaders."
Larry Benning of Austin, Tex., said if he could have appended a message to his ballot, it would have read: "None of the above and limit the terms for everybody."
Asked his view of the Democratic-dominated Congress, Benning was even more blunt: "I think they all ought to be shot," he said. "We should do it like the French. Line them up next to the guillotine and say, 'You have two choices: retirement or your head.' They've been in power so long and they just won't cut spending."
But the dissatisfaction with politics and politicians failed to translate into an anti-incumbent rout, and the ABC News nationwide telephone survey suggested why. While only 23 percent said they approved of the way Congress handled its job, 57 percent approved of the conduct of their own members. As a result, voters said they supported incumbents over challengers by 5 to 4 margins.
Still, voters slashed the victory margins of many prominent incumbents and the ABC poll showed that, as an abstract proposition, voters vastly preferred the new to the old. Asked what Congress needs most, experience or fresh ideas, voters opted for fresh ideas by a landslide margin of 77 percent to 19 percent.
While the issues on voters' minds differed sharply from state to state, discontent with the economy was pervasive.
"Help our economy!" pleaded Barbara Gueth, 29, a legal assistant, in describing the message she would write on her ballot.
"The economy is very fragile," said Richard Deville, a Pan Am captain from Coral Gables. "Where is it headed? Down in spades. Down a long ways."
Gueth and Deville were speaking for the nation: The ABC News Poll found that 75 percent of voters said the economy is getting worse.
Economic unhappiness was remarkably consistent from state to state. In Massachusetts, which is in a deep recession, more than four voters in five rated the national economy "not so good" or "poor." But even in California, whose economy is far more robust, roughly seven in 10 voters offered a similarly pessimistic view.
The unease did not appear to have the power it had at the ballot box in 1982, when the recession cost the Republicans 26 House seats. But to the extent that the pessimistic mood influenced this year's election, it worked for Democrats.
In California, Sen. Pete Wilson (R) led Dianne Feinstein (D) by almost 2 to 1 among the small minority of voters who rated the national economy as "excellent" or "good." But Feinstein beat Wilson by about 3 to 2 in the much larger group that rated the economy negatively.
In North Carolina, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) led Harvey Gantt (D) by almost 3 to 1 among voters with a positive view of the economy.
Among those who were most pessimistic, Gantt did far better, but Helms held his own. The pessimists backed Gantt by about 5 to 4.
Abortion, once seen as an issue that could dominate the 1990 elections, played an important but far less sweeping role when the ballots were actually cast, and activists on both sides can point to the results to claim victory.
Abortion opponents can cite gubernatorial victories by Democrat Joan Finney in Kansas and Republican George Voinovich in Ohio and the win by Helms in North Carolina. Abortion-rights activists can cite Democratic gubernatorial victories by Ann Richards in Texas and Lawton Chiles in Florida.
In North Carolina, where the two Senate candidates differed sharply, roughly three voters in 10 said abortion was one of the two most important issues affecting their vote. In Massachusetts and Illinois, only one in 10 said abortion was central.
If the issue's importance varied from state to state, so did the way it played out between Republicans and Democrats.
Both abortion rights and antiabortion forces made North Carolina a key test, but the exit polls suggested that neither Helms, a strong abortion foe, nor Gantt, an abortion-rights supporter, gained a clear advantage on the issue. Voters who listed abortion as a key concern split their votes almost exactly as the rest of the electorate did.
In California, Feinstein benefited from a strong vote among women, carrying them by nearly 3 to 2, while losing among men by not quite 5 to 4. According to CBS News, Richards (D) was carrying six in 10 women voters in Texas against Clayton Williams (R).
But solidarity did not always help women candidates.
In Illinois, Rep. Lynn Martin (R) was badly beaten by Sen. Paul Simon (D) -- and Simon actually did better among women than men.
Despite the Republicans' talk of increasing their share of the black vote, their efforts generally fell short of their hopes. Both Simon and Feinstein, for example, won roughly 90 percent of the black vote.
But as has happened before, some moderate Republicans made impressive inroads. In Illinois, Secretary of State Jim Edgar (R) captured about one-fifth of the black vote against Democratic Attorney General Neil F. Hartigan. Hartigan suffered from a split in the Cook County Democratic organization.
The Illinois contest also showed just how complex the issues of taxing and spending have become. In the governor's contest, Edgar and Hartigan reversed their parties' usual roles, with Edgar defending a tax increase approved under outgoing Gov. James R. Thompson (R) and Hartigan promising to roll it back.
Yet the exit poll showed that while voters overwhelmingly oppose the tax surcharge, Edgar and Hartigan were running a close race. Edgar managed this feat by winning well over 40 percent of those who said they opposed the tax.
Voting patterns varied as much among different groups as on issues.
Young voters, who in nationwide surveys are one of the Republican Party's strongest constituencies, solidly backed Gantt over Helms. Even among white voters, younger people were Gantt's strongest group. But in California, Wilson captured the under-30 vote over Feinstein.
In recent years, older voters have drifted toward the Democrats, partly because of strong Democratic opposition to Social Security and Medicare cuts. After the recent budget fight, Democrats had hoped that the elderly would provide them with a solid base this fall.
But in North Carolina, older voters -- perhaps swayed more by Helms's appeals on social and racial issues -- sided with the incumbent over challenger Gantt. And in California, voters over 60 split their votes between Wilson and Feinstein.
In the debate over the budget, Democrats believed they had found a national issue in their charges that Republicans had tried to protect the wealthy. One test of the effectiveness of the issue occurred in California where Feinstein latched onto economic populism in the final weeks of her campaign. Exit polls showed an economic fault line in voting patterns, with those earning under $30,000 a year voting strongly for the Democrat and those earning more than $50,000 backing Republican Wilson. Voters in the middle -- the $30,000 to $50,000 range -- split almost evenly.
A slightly different class cleavage emerged in the Illinois governor's contest. Hartigan carried those earning under $30,000 and Edgar won among those earning over $30,000.
The Massachusetts exit poll offered dramatic evidence of the political free fall of retiring Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee. Dukakis had carried his own state handily over Bush. But in the exit poll, only about a third of those surveyed admitted to voting for Dukakis two years ago. A majority said they had supported Bush.
Also contributing to this story were polling director Richard Morin, polling assistant Sharon Warden, staff writers Gwen Ifill, David A. Maraniss, Jay Mathews and Laura Parker, and special correspondents Christopher B. Daly and Lauren Ina.