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.)