Election Day is an opportunity for millions of Americans to participate in our democracy by voting for their preferred candidates. However, it’s also an opportunity for researchers to collect information on another critical aspect of democracy — public opinion.

Unlike phone or Internet surveys, which are easy to ignore, exit polls are typically conducted in person as people leave polling places, which ensures representative samples and completed questionnaires. The American Enterprise Institute has been running exit polls since 1972 and partnering with organizations like AP VoteCast from the Associated Press to report on exit poll data.

AEI recently compiled current and historical data into a comprehensive report. Here are some of the highlights from the group’s analysis:

COVID-19

According to AP VoteCast, 41% of voters say the pandemic is the most important issue facing the United States, compared to 28% who feel the economy is the most important issue. 

The past year has shown that COVID-19 and the economy are closely linked as businesses in some sectors continue to close, while others seem to be thriving. Exit poll respondents picked up on some of these contradictions, with nearly 70% saying their personal financial situation has held steady despite larger changes to the country’s economy as a whole.

While voters thought the pandemic was the most important issue facing the country, it was not the most important issue when it came to choosing which presidential candidate to vote for. The pandemic ranked third among voters’ top five issues that determined their choice for president — coming in behind the economy and racial inequality, according to the National Election Pool

Additionally, 67% of respondents said they consider wearing a mask to be a public health responsibility, while 30% characterized it as a personal choice.

The economy

According to the National Election Pool, voters are divided on how well the economy is doing. Around one-third each said it’s doing “good” or “not so good,” while 13% rate it as excellent and 19% rate it as poor. Similarly, 13% of respondents said their family’s financial situation is getting ahead, while 18% said they’re falling behind. 

Regardless of someone’s personal financial situation, the economy ranked as the most important issue for deciding which presidential candidate to choose, with 35% of National Election Pool respondents saying it was most influential.

Despite setbacks from COVID-19 and economic hardship, 53% of Americans think that life will be better for future generations than it is today. Another 21% think life for future generations will be about the same as it is today, while 20% say it will be worse.

The candidates

American voters were split on which presidential candidate would best address problems related to COVID-19 and the economy, with half saying Donald Trump would do better on the economy and Joe Biden would do better on pandemic response. 

Voters gave both Trump and Biden high marks when it comes to standing up for what they believe in, with 72% saying Trump does so and 63% saying Biden does so. However, 54% of voters characterized Biden as honest and trustworthy according to AP VoteCast, compared to 45% who said the same about Trump.

Historically, men have supported Republican candidates in every election since 1980, according to AEI’s analysis. Republicans saw support from senior citizens decline for the first time since 2004 while picking up support among Black, Hispanic, and Asian voters.


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