The Base Election on the Ground

Away from the political spotlight, voters and nonvoters eke out livings along the still-depressed I-4 corridor in Florida. Can anyone win their hearts?

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LAKELAND, FLA. -- When Mitt Romney went to the airport here the morning after his convention speech, he asked Republicans to find Obama voters and try to persuade them to switch their votes.

But in talking to shoppers in this impoverished suburban community and others along the politically significant I-4 corridor later in the day, it was clear why both campaigns so far have pursued a base-turnout strategy instead of one to broaden their reach: Neither has successfully made a compelling case for being able to fix the economic problems that have devastated communities like those in this part of Florida.

That joint failure has made more narrowly targeted appeals based on specific beliefs, cultural identity, and race and ethnicity stand out more.

Rebecca Simmons, 34, a part-time certified nursing assistant, was shopping at Walmart just outside of central Lakeland Friday afternoon. Obama was the only person she's ever voted for, she said, and she had no plans to vote for him again.

The economy "sucks," she said bluntly. "People at my work are actually crying when they go home because they can't pay their bills." She and her husband and 17-year-old son -- who has been held back so many times he's just now starting 10th grade, making her worry he'll never finish because "ain't no kid want to be in high school and be 21" -- are "barely holding on."

Obama promised change, but all she's seen in the past few years economically is that "it's getting worse."

"I don't feel like it matters who is up in there," she said, waving her hand in disgust at the idea of Washington.

Florida's unemployment rate in July was 8.8 percent -- down from 9.4 percent as recently as February -- but that substantially underestimates the extent of its problems. Local politicians have tried to put a game face on the state's economy. "Our state is doing extremely well," Republican Governor Rick Scott boasted recently. "We still have 800,000 people out of work, but we're changing it. Tourism is way up, jobs are up, housing prices are staying stable. If you want to buy a house, now is the time."

The overly positive talk has been going on for a while. In 2010, Lakeland ranked number five in the nation in suburban poverty, according to a report from the Brookings Institution, and even though Florida officials predicted that would improve quickly, not much has changed since.

According to the U.S. Census, per capita income in Polk County, which contains Lakeland, was $21,881 in 2010, and 15.2 percent of the population - which is 80 percent white - lived below the federal poverty line.

"We're not even voting, because there's so many crooks now in politics," an older man missing his front teeth waved me off when I approached him to chat about the economy outside the Lakeland Walmart.

Eighty-four-year old Nathaniel Horton was more forthcoming. He'd already voted early and for Obama. "I don't like no Republican," he said, based on his experiences growing up black in the deep South. But Obama "could lose" this time, he said, thanks to the economy. "It's bad. People ain't got no jobs, can't work," said his wife Nancy Horton.

Outside the Hobby Lobby, retired nurse Lizander Izsak, 64, a Jewish former McCain supporter and Canadian immigrant who recently became a citizen but has not registered to vote, said she'd go with Obama this fall if she could get on the rolls in time. In 2008, "I didn't think he was knowledgeable enough. He didn't have enough behind him," she said. "Now I think Romney is in the same position."

The local economy is "terrible," she said. "It's not better" than four years ago. "I think the housing market is coming back," she said, "but a lot of people are losing their jobs, being foreclosed on" still. The malls have emptied out as businesses in them failed, and at least three restaurants in her community shut down. The Hobby Lobby where she bought artificial flowers was relatively new, a sign of life in a big space that had gone vacant, she explained. Her son, who lives in Maryland, hasn't had a raise in three years but she tells him, "Don't complain, you've got benefits."

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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