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?
The county is best known for Daytona Beach, which evokes image of bawdy spring breakers (chased away years ago), burly, tattooed-covered Harley riders at Bike Week and the Daytona 500. But the biggest actual city, it turns out, is southwest Volusia’s Deltona, a soulless sprawl of modest single family homes with no town square, no town center, no downtown whatsoever.
Then there is New Smyrna Beach, where one can meet descendants of the Scots who grew cotton in the 18th century, or the more upscale Ormond Beach, whose white sand beaches used to attract the likes of Henry Flagler and John D. Rockefeller. Or historic DeLand along the St. John’s River.
So many choices, but we didn’t begin at any of them.
To determine where Volusia’s electorate is likely to land in November, the first stop was obvious: Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, a haven for mediums and psychics for more than a century.
Where better to find someone to predict the future?
No luck. It seems most mediums and psychics don’t do predictions, and few fortune tellers are left in Cassadaga, which bills itself as “where Mayberry meets the Twilight Zone.”
Certified medium Tina Green declined to predict the election, but she suggested we clear our minds and ask one of her home-made spiritual dowsing rods. It predicted an Obama win, but Green is an Obama supporter and may have been willing it to say so.
Medium Trish Smith also took a pass: “We don’t predict the future. What we do is we guide people, give them different options.”
She said she told one recent client to check the lug nuts on his tire. He laughed it off, until that very tire fell off while he was driving. Still, she said, elections are different.
“There are so many variables. One candidate could have a really powerful campaign ad. Or there could be some major event that changes the whole race.”
It doesn’t take a psychic to understand that.
Before every recent Florida presidential election, pundits and politicos invariably question whether the Sunshine State will be out of reach for the Democrats. They see how Florida’s state government has been overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans for more than a decade, they look at the latest off-year election and see how Republicans once again crushed Democrats in the state.
But more than almost any other battleground state, Democratic performance in off-year elections in Florida lag behind Democratic performance in high-turnout presidential campaigns. Volusia is Exhibit A for the trend. It reflects the lack of a strong Democratic political infrastructure in the state.
In 2000, Al Gore won Volusia by nearly 15,000 votes, and in 2002 Jeb Bush beat Bill McBride by nearly 14,000 votes. Two years later, John Kerry won Volusia by about 3,700 votes, and two years after that Democrat Jim Davis beat Charlie Crist by nearly 1,100 votes. Obama won by nearly 14,000 votes in 2008, and in 2010 Scott beat Sink by nearly 3,300.
Few people closely involved in the campaigns see Romney having a strong shot at winning Volusia in November, but Obama faces a real challenge matching his margin of victory from four years ago. Disenchanted white, working class voters and seniors, combined with an energized local Republican electorate make Volusia Republicans optimistic.
“The Republican party had been kind of moribund in Volusia for a long time. Beginning in 2010 we began to change that. We began to work on a serious strategy for organizing the party, for reviving it,” said Volusia GOP Chairman Stan Escudero. “There is deep-filled anger, resentment and more than a little fear that the people of Volusia County have toward the Obama administration.”
County Democratic Chairman Phil Giorno acknowledged the local party has had some trouble recruiting volunteers, but the Obama campaign has been aggressively working the county from two campaign offices.
About 10 percent of the county’s electorate is African-American, and the growing Hispanic population, mostly Puerto Ricans, makes up another 10 percent ripe for Obama.
“I really appreciate what Obama has done with health care reform, and it’s clear he’s the one more for the middle class, not just the rich,” said Marlene Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to Deltona from New York three years ago.
The Obama campaign is targeting those voters, as well as independent seniors and students at four colleges and universities in Volusia — Bethune Cookman, Stetson, Daytona State College, and Embry-Riddle.
In random interviews across the county last week, there were also signs that the Obama campaign’s middle class-focused message is starting to register. Four different people independently cited the Democratic convention or Bill Clinton’s convention speech as helping push them to the sitting president.
“I was strictly Romney, but after the convention I’m leaning toward Obama,” said Republican Matt Pitts, while slinging hot dogs at his Casey’s on the Corner restaurant in downtown DeLand. “I’m worried Romney is going to end up raising taxes for us small little guys. I’m a small businessman, and Obama looks like he’ll be better for small businesses, instead of big business.”
Like so much of Florida, Volusia is defined more by agenda and common community. West Volusia relates much more to Orlando than Daytona Beach, reapportionment has carved up Volusia so much that a county that once produced legislative giants such as Brown, T.K. Wetherell and Sam Bell, is now mostly fragmented.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal newspaper used to be a powerful, Democratic-leaning and community-minded voice in Volusia. But its family owners sold it in 2010, and the newspaper now steers largely clear of politics.
“That was kind of a beacon of liberal and progressive thinking that influenced voters,” said Bell, who represented Volusia in the state House for more than a decade.
Likewise, locals say the influential France family — founders of NASCAR and the Daytona International Speedway — are no longer as visible in local politics.
That trend and the lack of cohesiveness make Volusia as complex politically as Florida itself.
It takes much more than a Cassadaga dowsing rod to figure out its electorate.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.