Florida is once again poised to play an important role in selecting the president in 2012. Its Republican primary on Jan. 31 is the nation's fourth nominating contest.
But Florida is a very different state than it was four years ago. It is reeling from the housing collapse — more than 200,000 homes are facing foreclosure — and suffering from an unemployment rate well above the national average.
You can see the economic impact firsthand in places such as St. George's Episcopal Church in South Florida's Riviera Beach.
The church's soup kitchen is open five days a week for lunch and dinner. The program serves more than 2,000 meals a week — and the numbers are up from last year.
The Rev. Hap Lewis, who helps run the program, says that although unemployment numbers improved recently both nationally and in Florida, he sees no signs things are getting better in the faces of the people coming in.
"The main thing that we're seeing is a lot more families coming," Lewis says. "A lot of people have 31 days in every month and 21 days of money. So we find especially at the latter part of the month, our census rises."
Many of those who come to the soup kitchen have jobs. Lewis says that at lunchtime, whole crews come in, eager to save their lunch money.
But it's not just those who come for meals who have been hit by Florida's economic problems. Those serving the food have been affected as well. Many of them are retirees like Howard Evirs.
Evirs says the housing bust wiped out half the value of his main nest egg — his home.
"We had considered selling it just before the market broke," he says. "Then the value of the house went way down. So we made a decision — we'll stay in there till we die."
Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida, says unemployment affects the families of those who have lost their jobs, but the housing debacle goes much further. It has taken a personal financial toll on nearly every homeowner in the state.
"The amount of wealth that was lost to the median family here in Florida is really staggering," he says. "If the median family of four in Florida were to save at twice the national savings rate, it would take something like 18 years to save back what they lost in home equity."
A University of Florida consumer confidence survey finds a deep streak of pessimism in the state. An increasing number of people think things will be worse with their personal finances and the nation's economy a year from now.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, says that in the past, buoyed by growth, Florida has bounced back quickly from economic downturns.
"This time, we're lagging way behind the rest of the country. And Floridians are simply not used to that," she says. "And as a consequence, they're very angry about what's happening in Washington. And they are paying a lot of attention to the economy and jobs."
That concern is particularly deep, MacManus notes, among Florida's many senior citizens. About 1 in 5 Floridians is older than 65, and seniors have a high turnout rate for elections.
Who's In Trouble?
What's not so clear is who gets the blame. President Obama's approval ratings are low in the state — 41 percent, according to Quinnipiac University. But those of Republican Gov. Rick Scott are even lower, at 33 percent.
When pollsters ask Floridians whom they blame for the nation's poor economic conditions, MacManus says they are almost equally divided between Republicans and Democrats.
"That's why some political analysts are projecting that this could be yet another wave election — where people in office that ... are known to be incumbents could be in trouble," she says.
Four years ago, something else was different for Republicans campaigning in Florida. Unlike now, the state's governor in 2007 was actually popular. As a presidential candidate, Republican Sen. John McCain scored a coup when he secured the endorsement of then-Gov. Charlie Crist. It helped him win Florida and seal up the Republican nomination.
This time, while Florida Republican leaders are aligning with presidential candidates, Scott, the current governor, is on the sidelines. And given his unpopularity, that's where he's likely to remain when Republican candidates ramp up their Florida campaigns in January.
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