DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The story of the last two American elections is the story of America falling in and out of love with Barack Obama. Nowhere was that more true than Florida: Its rejection of the president in 2010 took the form of a new Republican governor and senator, and two-thirds of both statehouses. Many were not just Republicans but hard-right conservatives buoyed by tea party fervor.
Obama spent the last two years trying to get back the voters who carried him to victory here in 2008, then turned against him in 2010. It is the central argument of his reelection campaign: Sure, we've had our differences, and things are not perfect, but it's OK to come back.
The central question of 2012 is whether people are buying it -- whether, having turned their backs on him once, voters are ready to give Obama another chance. In Florida, I met many who are not.
"I was expecting a lot, and he didn't follow through," said Joanne W., a 40-year-old school worker and 2008 Obama voter who lives on the outskirts of this ramshackle beach town on the central Florida coast. She spent a couple of years unemployed when the economy crashed, and her husband was still out of work; though she'd found a new job, it was a long commute, and gas prices were eating away at her budget.
When I met Joanne -- blonde hair piled atop her head, metal-framed glasses glinting in the sun, dressed in the Florida uniform of sandals, capri pants and T-shirt -- she still considered herself undecided. The debates were sitting on her DVR and she was determined to watch them all before casting a vote. But "probably Romney" was the way she described her thinking.
"They all promise a lot, Romney too," she said. "I just want a better economy. Gas prices going down. Someone who can fix it for the long term."
The polls currently show Florida looking more hostile to Obama than almost any other swing state. (Only North Carolina looks worse for the president.) If he loses here -- indeed, if he loses the 2012 election -- it will be because of voters like these: the ones who refused to take him back.
As hard as Florida's swing against Obama seemed, there were actually just two counties in the state that went from voting for him to voting for Republican Gov. Rick Scott: Volusia, which contains Daytona Beach, and Flagler, its neighbor to the north.
Driving down the main streets here, it's not hard to see why. It's still the tail end of tourist season -- 80-some degrees and sunny until Hurricane Sandy began to whip up winds on the beach last week -- but so much is closed for good. Restaurants boarded up. Dilapidated motels. A former car dealership where the scavenged letters in "Lincoln Mercury" have left shadows on the concrete facade; a furniture store in the last throes of a going-out-of-business sale. When people aren't buying houses, they don't buy much new furniture.
The town's economy is "event-based," as one local put it to me: Its seasonal calendar revolves around two NASCAR races and two motorcycle rallies annually, which the locals, naturally, do their best to avoid. There's also the beach, of course -- miles and miles of it, divided from the mainland by the Halifax River in a long, perfect, double-sided spit. You can get a hotel room with a view of the ocean for well under $100 a night.
Some locals say the economy first began to slip when MTV Spring Break left Daytona, its founding locale, more than a decade ago. But the real story is clearly told in the median home price, which peaked in 2006 at $175,000 and now is less than $80,000 and still declining. Even as the rate of foreclosure has slackened in most parts of the country, in Florida, it's double the national average and rising. The unemployment rate, 8.7 percent, is 13th highest in the country. The growth that powered the state's economy in the boom years -- jobs in tourism and construction and real estate, along with a no-income tax policy -- was essentially a Ponzi scheme that collapsed, leaving everyone holding the bag.
"It hasn't come back at all, really," said 58-year-old Bill Perry, a Daytona Beach native who's owned Willie's Tropical Tattoo for 22 years. With his long gray beard, frizzy ponytail, earrings and inked-up arms, he looks every inch the biker -- but there's a Romney-Ryan sign on his shop's marquee these days, the first time he's ever put up a candidate's sign. (When I asked him what he thought of Governor Scott, Perry paused for a long moment and said, "I miss Jeb," meaning former Gov. Jeb Bush. Many Democrats told me the same thing.)
Perry figures he loses business because of the Romney sign, business that's already slow since the construction workers stopped pouring in. "But I had to take a stand," he says.
Enough polls have shown Mitt Romney ahead in Florida that Republicans have begun to see the state the way Democrats see Ohio -- the swing state they can count on even if the others begin to slip. (The New York Times' Nate Silver currently gives Romney a 65 percent chance to win Florida, while Obama has a 75 percent chance of winning Ohio.) "Romney has pretty much nailed down Florida," the Tampa Bay Times' pollster said of the paper's most recent survey.
There's another way in which Florida is the political mirror image of Ohio. In Ohio, Obama has an uplifting story to tell: The auto industry, which is linked to one in eight of the state's jobs, was on the brink of collapse, the federal government stepped in, and now the factories are humming and people are working again. Though Republicans quibble with this narrative, they have yet to settle on a consistent argument against it, and the auto rescue is broadly popular across party lines. When you talk to voters in the state, even many Republicans will allow that things are getting better.
It is exactly the opposite in Florida. Many economists argue that the Obama administration's failure to act more aggressively on housing is the No. 1 reason the recovery has not been quicker or more complete. Obama himself in a recent interview called the effort on housing "modest," in the course of attacking Romney for having said he would do even less. And so in Florida, on the central economic issue the state faces, Obama finds himself with nothing much to sell.
"I voted for Obama. Everything sounded so lovely. We needed a change," said William Archiello, a 55-year-old van-service owner who votes in Florida but still spends half the year in his native New Jersey. "He fooled me."
Archiello, a ruddy-complected man with tattooed arms and a bristly head of blond hair, sees evidence all around that things have never been worse. "Every three days, someone knocks on my door -- 'Can I clean your pool? Can I cut your palm trees?' " he said. "I own four rental properties -- that was my retirement. Now the value is down 65 or 70 percent and I can't retire. I'll be working until it bounces back."
I ask Archiello when Obama lost him. He thinks about it for a while, then says it was health care reform. He was already having doubts, but that sealed it, and he has never looked back.
There is still hope for Obama in Florida, however, and the greatest source of it is turnout. When Volusia and Flagler counties went Republican in 2010, they did so with 100,000 fewer voters than came out in 2008. Many of the partisan Democrats I met in Daytona hadn't voted in 2010.
And then there was Debbie Clark, a 58-year-old retired paralegal with a leathery tan, holding a beagle on a leash in her driveway on the edge of town. "I think Romney is a puppet, an idiot, not up to date," she said. "He's so out of touch with the 21st Century." She voted for Obama four years ago and was determined to do so again.
I asked Clark whether she voted in the gubernatorial election two years ago. "Governor Scott," she said. "He is about education, and that's what we need in this state more than anything else."
People will surprise you, especially in Florida. In my discussions with the swing voters of Daytona Beach, Clark was the exception. Obama had better hope she is the rule.