RENO, Nev. (AP) — Nevadans on Tuesday once again delivered their battleground state to Barack Obama, resisting Republican Mitt Romney's call for change. In a state suffering some of the worst unemployment and housing foreclosure rates in the nation, most voters didn't blame the president directly for their economic woes, and many believe things are getting better.
Preliminary exit poll results show more Nevada voters blame Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, than they do the president for the current economic conditions that many Republicans had believed would help put the key swing state back in the red column after Obama's surprising 12 percentage point victory over Sen. John McCain.
Nevadans also narrowly sided with Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller who won a hard-fought race with seven-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley by about 12,000 votes, 46 percent to 45 percent. They re-elected Republican U.S. Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei, returned Democrat Dina Titus to Congress after a two-year hiatus, and sent the state's first black Senate majority leader, Democrat Steven Horsford, to Washington to fill a new House district stretching across the middle of the state.
Although it was a closer race than in 2008, final results early Wednesday showed Obama won Nevada's six electoral votes with 52 percent of the vote to Romney's 46 percent.
It means Nevada continues its reputation as the nation's best bellwether over the past century, having voted for the candidate that wins the White House in 25 of the last 26 elections dating to 1912 — the lone exception when Jimmy Carter won in 1976.
Exit polls showed Obama was buoyed by another huge showing from union Democrats in Las Vegas and carried Hispanics by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. He also had a significant advantage among women statewide, including a 2-to-1 margin with women under age 30, according to the preliminary exit poll conducted for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Research in a random statewide sample.
The gender gap that Obama benefited from in the presidential race didn't appear to be translating to the U.S. Senate race, where Berkley's advantage among women was barely outside the margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. It also showed that while Berkley had a significant advantage in her hometown of Las Vegas and Clark County, Heller was faring significantly better there than Romney did.
Romney did better than McCain among minorities in general, the polling showed. One-third of Nevada voters who are independents or third-party members also sided with Romney after preferring Obama four years ago.
Romney came closer than McCain but fell short in Reno's traditionally-GOP leaning Washoe County, where Obama had become the first Democrat to triumph since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Obama won by 23,000 votes four years ago and carried it by nearly 7,000 votes this time.
In the end, the Democratic storm in southern Nevada's Clark County — which favored Obama by 14 percentage points, down from 19 points last time — was too much to overcome when combined with voters' apparent reluctance to pin the blame for the economy on Obama.
In fact, exit polling showed Nevadans were evenly divided on whether Obama or Romney would better handle the economy.
Citing the economy as their top concern far more often than health care, the federal deficit or foreign policy, nearly three-fourths of Nevada voters surveyed described the U.S. economic condition as "poor" or "not so good."
But about 4 out of 10 think the economy is getting better. Three out of 10 think it's getting worse, and a similar number think it's about the same.
"For me, the economy is better," said Robert Kerr, 38, a preschool teacher in Henderson who voted for Obama. "Belts are loosening, the jobs are there."
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.
"I think it's at about a standstill, actually," said Jodi Carness, 40, an Obama backer who works at a marketing firm in Las Vegas. "I have a job, and I actually don't know a lot of people who don't have a job, but just based on inflation, I just feel like it will get better. We're not there yet."
Both candidates had 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 exit polling 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.
Bernice Delabarre of Boulder City, who said she favored Romney because he shares her values and thinks Obama is ruining the country, made up her mind "way before that."
"Probably Jan. 21, 2009," said Delabarre.
Turnout topped the 1 million mark statewide, with nearly 81 percent of the Nevada's active registered voters casting a ballot this election, eclipsing 2008's general election turnout of 80 percent.
Voters from families with incomes under $100,000 sided with Obama, and those in excess of $100,000 with Romney, according to the preliminary exit poll results. Nevada voters whose family income totals less than $50,000 backed Obama 2-to-1.
Romney enjoyed a 2-to-1 advantage among the one-fifth of Nevada voters who identify themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians.
Married voters also favored Romney — married men by at least 10 percentage points in the exit poll — while unmarried men sided with Obama and non-married women went that way by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
The one-third of Nevada voters who said the most important quality in their candidate was that he had a vision for the future were divided between Obama and Romney. The one-quarter who said their candidate shared their same values and the one-fifth who said their candidate is a strong leader also favored Romney while the final roughly one-fifth who cited "cares about people like me" sided with Obama by as much as an 8-to-1 margin.
Nevada voters overwhelmingly said that abortion should remain legal; only about one-third think it should be against the law.
On health care, voters were almost split on whether they believe the federal law 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 4,141 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.