Have I Got the Candidate for You!

How the real-estate market could turn Florida for Obama.

Read the rest of the Swingers series.

Florida house for sale

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.

Realtor Lynn Mooney

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.

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.

Obama’s strategy to turn this state back to the Democratic column for the first time since Bill Clinton won in 1996 is to never leave Florida voters alone for a second. He’s going to spend almost $40 million here; McCain’s campaign is spending $25 million—many millions of which it thought it would be able to spend elsewhere. Obama has about 50 field offices; John Kerry had 14 in 2004. In the first week of October, Obama poured $2.8 million into television advertising in the state; McCain spent $623,000. During my time in Tampa, I didn’t see a single McCain television spot. But watching back-to-back episodes of What Not To Wear left the impression the show was sponsored by the Obama health care plan.

A New York Times reporter found that, over the course of two weeks of visits to the candidates’ field offices across the state, there were consistently more volunteers at Obama’s than McCain’s. The day I dropped by Obama’s Tampa office, a warren of rooms in a building on the edge of downtown, people were streaming in. “Do you want to do ‘woman to woman’ calls?” a young man asked an older woman who came through the door. In one room was a group of people hunched over laptops doing data entry. In another were women on the phone—presumably to other women.

A few miles away was McCain’s office. In the parlance of real estate, it was magnificent: hi ceils, rvr vu. From the phone bank, one could see where the Hillsborough River meets Tampa Bay. But there were no volunteers on the phones to admire the view.

Both the Realtor and the political scientist believe that it’s McCain’s and Obama’s job to convince Florida voters that they can stop the roof from caving in. “Unless we get real estate moving again,” says Lynn Mooney, “it doesn’t matter who’s in office.” Or, as Richard Scher puts it: “The whole state floats on real estate. The winner will inspire confidence about fixing the real-estate collapse.”

In other words, the winner in Florida may well be the candidate who offers the best answer to a simple question: What do I have to do to get you in this house today?