RENO, Nev. (AP) — The economy was first and foremost on the minds of Nevada voters as they cast ballots Tuesday for president in the key battleground state, with 6 out of 10 identifying it as the most important issue facing the country, preliminary exit poll numbers show.
In a state that has suffered some of the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the nation since helping elect President Barack Obama in 2008, voters in the state cited the economy as their top concern far more often than health care, the federal deficit or foreign policy.
Nearly three-fourths describe the U.S. economic condition as poor or "not so good," according to the preliminary exit poll conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research in a random statewide sample.
But about 4 out of 10 Nevada voters surveyed think the economy is getting better. Three out of 10 think it's getting worse and a similar amount think it's about the same.
About 4 in 10 Nevada voters said their own family's financial situation is worse today than it was four years ago, but about a quarter said they are in better shape and the rest about the same.
Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney poured tens of millions of dollars into Nevada to blanket the airwaves with ads in pursuit of the state's coveted electoral votes that could settle the presidency. But the exit polling Tuesday suggests a lot of the money spent down the stretch was a waste — nearly three-fourths of Nevada voters said they had settled on their choice for president before Labor Day.
In regard to campaign issues, Nevada voters overwhelmingly say that abortion should remain legal, only about one-third think it should be against the law.
On health care, voters are almost split on whether they believe that it should be expanded, left as is, or completely or partially repealed.
When it comes to immigration, 6 in 10 voters believe that illegal immigrants working in the U.S. should be offered a chance to apply for legal status. Half as many want illegal immigrants deported.
The survey of 3,089 voters was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results from interviews conducted as voters left a random sample of 47 precincts statewide Tuesday, as well as 1,104 who voted early or absentee and were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Oct. 29 through Nov. 4. Results for the full sample were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.
Obama won by a surprising 12 percentage points against Republican John McCain in 2008 but has had a harder time shaking Romney.
Some polls conducted before the election showed Obama with a slight lead but most were within, or barely outside, the margin of error in a state that has historically been a litmus test for presidential politics. Nevada has picked 24 out of 25 presidential victors in the past 100 years — the lone exception occurring in 1976 when the state chose a losing President Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter.
Obama was hoping signs of economic recovery combined with state party resources Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has marshaled in recent years would propel him to Nevada's six electoral votes on the way to re-election.
Romney was counting on a less enthusiastic turnout in the heavily Democratic, union-dominated Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County and a better showing by Republicans in Reno's Washoe County, which traditionally has been a GOP stronghold but went blue four years ago for the first time since Lyndon Johnson won in 1964.
Obama defeated Republican John McCain by 123,000 votes in Clark County — a 19-point margin in the county that makes up two-thirds of Nevada's active registered voters. He won by 23,000 votes, or 12.6 points in Washoe County, which has about one-fifth of the voters. McCain dominated the rest of the state — mostly rural areas.
But in the four years since Nevada's tourism-dependent economy has taken a hit as hard as any. Two years ago, Reid had to fight off a stiff challenge to his re-election to a sixth term and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval was elected with two-thirds of the vote.
The state's north-south, urban-rural split is also a driving force in a nasty Senate race pitting Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas against incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Carson City. Heller, a former congressman in Nevada's most rural district, was a midterm appointment to the seat after GOP Sen. John Ensign resigned in a sex scandal.