Read the rest of the Swingers series.
TAMPA, Fla.—Driving central Florida's foreclosure road is to see economic anxiety made concrete: miles and miles of concrete. Along the Interstate 4 corridor, aquatically named housing developments (Bays, Beaches, Points, Isles, Vistas) pile up, one twisting cul-de-sac after another bristling with "For Sale" signs.
It may not be selling, but this is among the most coveted political real estate in the country. And it is creating anxiety for the presidential campaign of John McCain. After two consecutive Bush victories—the president won notoriously in 2000 by 537 votes and comfortably in 2004 by 380,978 votes—Florida was expected to stay in the Republican column in 2008. As the national and global economies have deteriorated, however, Barack Obama's prospects in Florida have improved. The latest polls show him up almost four percentage points, a dramatic reversal of McCain's more-than-six-point lead just a month ago.
Whether Obama can make his lead last till Election Day is a question not even a Tampa real-estate speculator would venture to answer. But on the theory that Florida real-estate agents are at least as in touch with the state's political mood as Florida political consultants, I decided to tour the landscape with Lynn Mooney, 63, a Realtor who has been selling in the Tampa area for 24 years.
Realtors are trained to be optimists, so Mooney puts a good face on the fact that her income has dropped 75 percent from a high of $200,000 before the 2005 crash to $50,000 now. Because she doesn't trust any Democrat to let her keep much of what's left, she's voting for McCain, but not enthusiastically. She thinks he has run his campaign like "a spoiled brat misbehaving for attention." Once a Bush fan, she is no longer ("The economy didn't just happen, it has been a problem for three years—hello!")and now is disenchanted with all politicians.
Still, Mooney says that Realtors tend to be believers in free markets and small government, so they naturally trend Republican. But "this year may be different," she says. "I am seeing more and more Obama pins on fiscally conservative people."
Richard Scher, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, confirms that without the growing economic fears, I wouldn't be talking to him about how Florida will go because McCain would have taken it out of play. "The mood in Florida is very different from 2000 and 2004," he says. "Then we were a confident, wealthy state. Now we're broke. I've been here 30 years, and I haven't seen Floridians this anxious in a long time." He says older people are worried about their pensions and 401(k)s, and his students are wondering if there will be jobs for them when they graduate.
Back to real estate: True to form, Mooney has arranged for me to see some very attractive properties. "We should go by some waterfront property," she says. "There's a development that's just gorgeous—every other house there is in foreclosure. We could look at the senior housing market. That started the boom, and now it's dead." According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, in the second quarter of this year, 6 percent of Florida's residential mortgage loans were in foreclosure, leading the nation.
Mooney blames everyone (although, like most Realtors, not Realtors) for this mess. "Both parties were enablers, everybody was an enabler. I fault everyone, not just the government." She cites the unscrupulous lenders who pushed people to purchase homes beyond their means and the economists who said the housing market would float like helium.