Read the rest of the Swingers series.
But most of all, she blames it on a source politicians generally don't mention: average Americans. She blames the buyers who treated their houses as if they were ATMs, withdrawing cash from the mortgages they piled up. "People today don't ever expect to pay off anything. Houses, cars, anything." She blames the regular folks who decided they had a little Donald Trump in them and became real-estate "investors"—buying multiple properties to flip for quick profits.
We drive to Sun City Center, an age-restricted "active adult" community where residents who've lost their driver's licenses can cruise the highway in golf carts. We stop in front of a foreclosed home that is listed for $140,000; the couple who owned it owe almost $300,000 on it. "They took out loans against it and went on vacations and bought clothes and cars," she explains. Then the mortgages adjusted, and they walked away. It's a story she can repeat for mile after mile.
The I-4 corridor is to political consultants what Gettysburg is to Civil War buffs—a slice of land where battles can be forever studied and re-enacted. Running from Tampa on the Gulf Coast through the theme parks of Orlando to the Atlantic beaches of Daytona, this is where more than 40 percent of the state's voters live. Of them, 20 percent are independents with the rest almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
If Florida is a swing state, then this is its "swing corridor," says Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida. "It's the most predictive of how the state will go." To win Florida's 27 electoral votes, Scher says, Obama must both turn out his voters in Florida's big urban counties and capture the hearts of the people along I-4 who have trouble making up their minds. "That's where the dynamic is," he says. "If Obama gets them, he wins."
(Keep in mind that in Florida every group is touted as the one that could tip the state: blacks, Hispanics, Jews, retirees, white women, young people. Hey, if it's as close as it was in 2000, this could be the year of the felon. To the consternation of some in his party, last year Republican Gov. Charlie Crist made it legal for ex-convicts to vote, and since then about 120,000 have had their voting rights restored. As University of Florida economist David Denslow observes, "Most felons are not Republicans. If they are, they've retired to Bermuda.")
In modern Florida history Democrats have always maintained a voter-registration edge over Republicans, but many of these Democrats are conservatives who have helped put successive popular Republican governors—Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist—in office and have no trouble crossing party lines to cast a presidential vote. But Democrats are hoping a vast voter-registration effort this year, which has widened the Democratic advantage to more than 500,000 so far, will produce new Democratic voters who will actually vote for the Democrat. It looks promising. As the Washington Post points out, as of Sept. 1, more new Florida voters registered as independents (155,000) than as Republicans (129,000), and newly registered Democrats exceeded both of those combined (316,000).
After my tour with Mooney, I decide to check the multiple-listing service, so to speak: I meet for breakfast with a group of Realtors at the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors headquarters. The association has 7,518 members; since the bust of 2005, it's shed nearly 500—people who found the professional optimism of Realtors no match for reality. Two-thirds of Floridians aren't from Florida, and, like good Floridians, most of my breakfast mates are originally from someplace else. This transience is another factor that makes Florida's voters so hard to pin down. Stanley Smith, a professor of economics at the University of Florida, estimates that almost 20 percent of this year's Florida voters will be new voters—either they've arrived since the last presidential election, or they've become old enough to vote.
Sandy Streit, who's in her 50s, is a registered Democrat and former Hillary Clinton supporter. After Clinton withdrew, she took a long look at McCain because she thought of him as a moderate. His choice of Sarah Palin pushed her decisively to Obama: "It's not difficult anymore. Let's vote." But Jo Easton, who'd rather not reveal her age, a registered Democrat and also a former Clinton supporter, is worried about Obama's lack of experience and is voting for McCain. "I want someone who will keep my home safe," she says, and by that she's not just talking real estate. "I think McCain would push the button. I don't think Obama would." Pamela Terrell, 53, is a black woman who was also a Clinton supporter. It took her a while to warm up to Obama, but now she's convinced: "He's shown exemplary character, attitude, confidence."
My totally random Realtor sample showed conclusively why the state remains a tossup: four for McCain, three for Obama, and one undecided.