DELAND -- What do Rick Scott and Barack Obama have in common? Very little, except that they both carried Volusia County.
If you want to see who wins Florida in November, you can’t find a better county to watch than this perplexing mix of leather-clad bikers, rural fern growers, retirees, struggling mom and pop business owners, and working class suburbanites commuting to and from Orlando.
Volusia has long been one of Florida’s ultimate bellwether counties, probably because, for good or ill, it so mirrors Florida and America: a disorderly mix of cultures, interests and geography. It’s a county in search of an identity, still trying to figure out what it wants to be — affordable tourist mecca, manufacturing hub, bedroom community?
Four years ago Obama beat John McCain in this diverse county of half a million people, 52 percent to 47 percent, one point worse than his national vote margin of 53 percent to 46 percent. Two years later, gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott beat Alex Sink in Volusia, 49 percent to 47 percent, one point better than his statewide margin.
“Volusia flip-flops,’’ said Jim Cameron, vice president of government relations of the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We’re a swing county in the I-4 corridor, and you know what they say: As goes the I-4 corridor, so goes Florida.”
Obama won Volusia by nearly 14,000 votes four years ago, but by most accounts he will be hard-pressed to match that margin in 2012.
“There’s a feeling ... that it’s a toss-up between Obama and Romney, though probably slightly leaning toward Romney if I had to guess, and toward Bill Nelson in the Senate race,” said J. Hyatt Brown of Ormond Beach, former Democratic state House speaker, and chairman of one of the state’s leading businesses, Brown & Brown Insurance.
What makes Volusia such a bellwether is its status as a diverse microcosm of Florida — rural, urban, suburban; old Florida and new; white, black, and Hispanic; a closely divided electorate. Slightly more than 38 percent of Volusia’s 320,000 voters are Democrats, nearly 36 percent are Republicans, and about 26 percent belong to no party or minor parties.
But above all what makes this place such an uncanny mirror of the state’s and nation’s political pulse this year is the sense — from the empty storefronts and weeds growing through sidewalk cracks throughout Daytona Beach, to the long list of short sales and foreclosures in Deltona — that Volusia has seen better days. The unemployment rate is 9.4 percent, compared to 8.8 percent statewide, and between 2006 and 2011 the median price of homes has dropped from $217,000 to $116,000.
This is not a place that has seen much hope and change come to fruition.
“Do we want change? Yeah, because all we have now is change — no dollar bills left,’’ said Tom Smith, a struggling owner of a light manufacturing business in DeLand.
“I feel like we’re living in the Great Depression,” he said, walking through picturesque DeLand with his wife Sue. “I don’t even have part-time employees anymore, I have sometime employees: If I get some business sometime, I call them.”
Where should one start to take the political pulse of Volusia County?