Obama Faces Challenge in a Battered Florida

Unemployment and housing remain major problems in Florida, threatening Obama's reelection

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In a 1980 debate against then-president Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan posed a simple question: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Currently, the answer is likely "no" for many Americans, and, perhaps, particularly for Floridians. In Florida, the next state on the primary docket and a perpetually crucial swing state, the job market is weak and the economy falls behind national averages on several measures. How Florida voters view their economic situation could be the determining factor, both in that state's presidential primary and the November general election.

[Read about the latest encouraging jobs figures.]

Florida's housing and job markets are among the weakest in the nation. Florida's 10 percent unemployment rate as of November put it at 44th in the country and 1.3 percentage points above the national rate. Likewise, Florida had the seventh-highest foreclosure rate in 2011, with 2.06 percent, according to RealtyTrac. The national rate last year was three-quarters of that, at 1.45 percent.

How Florida's unique economic troubles will play out in its Republican primary depends on what voters view as the cause of those woes, says Stephen C. Craig, professor of political science at the University of Florida.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich are selling different remedies to economic troubles, he says. While Romney is trying to sell himself as a staid, responsible businessman, Gingrich is casting himself as a "bombthrower," hoping to rock the political system at a time when Americans are disenchanted with Washington. [See how the European crisis could hurt the U.S. economy.]

"Whereas Romney is hoping that they're looking for a qualified candidate, Gingrich is hoping they're looking for something else," Craig elaborates. "He's not going to admit he's not qualified; that's not the point. But he's not selling himself on being qualified to be president. He's an idea man. He wants to move the world. He wants to shake things up. He wants to alter the way we do business in a more fundamental way."

In the general election, however, voters make their decisions based on the economy's trajectory, says Craig. On both a state and national level, the job market is worse now than it was in 2008. Florida's unemployment rate is up by 2.4 percentage points since the last general election, when it stood at 7.6 percent. That month, the national rate was 6.8 percent. It presently sits at 8.5 percent. "So far, it's clear that the public is not yet persuaded that things are getting better," says Craig.

If that's true on a national level,, will voters punish the president in a state where the economic picture is so bleak?

Thus far, the answer appears to be "yes." Obama won Florida by 2.5 percentage points in 2008, but according to a Quinnipiac University poll released on Jan. 11, Florida voters gave him a 42 percent job approval rating and said 52-44 that the president does not deserve a second term.

Still, the Florida unemployment rate has improved markedly from its peak, and its 2011 foreclosure rate was less than half of what it was in 2008. Thus, it may not matter that the state's economic indicators are worse than national averages.

If voters look at Florida in the context of national figures, says Craig, " It's going to be very difficult for Obama to carry Florida." But he adds, "I don't think feelings and attitudes are that precise for most people. They see it on a gut level: 'Am I better off than I was four years ago? Is my state, is my country, better off?'"

If the current recovery takes a broader and stronger hold nationally, Floridians may be able to look at both their state and country with some measure of optimism, making it a tough fight between Obama and the Republican nominee in November.