Are you ready for Tuesday's election? Having flashbacks to 2000, when Florida's sleazeball recount decided the election of George W. Bush?
Well, as likely as not, we in Florida will choose the president again this year. With 29 electoral votes up for grabs, ours is by far the largest swing state — and several polls have shown the race to be a dead heat.
But this time, the whole thing won't be decided by Palm Beach butterfly ballots — or even law-breaking Miami balloteros flooding the town with absentees. The folks most likely to choose the next president live in Central Florida, near the 132-mile east-west artery known as the I-4 corridor, which includes Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hillsborough counties on the Gulf coast, Polk in the middle, and Osceola, Orange, and Volusia on the east.
Sandwiched between Tampa and Daytona Beach, this strip of concrete is Florida's very own Mason-Dixon line, subdividing the state into red and blue halves in which the conservative North votes Republican and the liberal South usually sides with the Democrats.
More than two-thirds of voters back President Barack Obama in the southeastern part of the state, and a similar majority supports former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on the Panhandle's Redneck Riviera.
However, the cluster of Central Florida counties along the corridor is as unpredictable as it is diverse. The counties are made up of a unique blend of old Florida crackers, immigrant farm workers, white-collar businessmen, and semi-insane race-baiting preachers. But more on that later.
Says Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn: "You're as likely to hear a Christian radio station as you are Mexican or Cuban music, which is why the I-4 corridor is so important in presidential politics. [It's] a perfect petri dish of America in all of its extremes."
It's also one of the main reasons the GOP chose Tampa as the host city for this year's Republican National Convention.
Last week, a Scripps-WPTV poll showed Barack Obama trailing Mitt Romney in Florida by a single percentage point. A CNN poll showed exactly the same thing. Both results are within the margin of error.
Why is it so close? And what's likely to happen Tuesday?
To determine the answer, New Times followed the lead of those luminaries from the Wall Street Journal, CBS News, and Jon Stewart's Daily Show by traveling the I-4 corridor with microphone and reporter's notepad in hand. Except we didn't do it for just a day, but rather we spent months interviewing homeless folks in the woods who follow the debates on a battery-powered boom box, several conspiracy theorists, some first-time voters, and a guy who still uses the word mulatto.
These are just some of the people behind decision 2012.
Along the potholed stretch of highway known as U.S. Route 17, one of the best places to grab a "Jesus Is My Homie" trucker cap and fresh tacos al pastor at 9 a.m. on a Saturday is a flea market near Beresford Avenue and South Woodland Boulevard, about two miles from Stetson University in DeLand.
It's a fascinating melting pot of political theory and religious idolatry.
Interviews with dozens of voters here turned up a consensus: The country is floating around like a dense chunk of shit in an Arby's toilet that hasn't been sanitized since the Clinton administration. But like both Romney and Obama, no one in DeLand can seem to agree on a plan to flush and start anew.
"If I had to choose, I would choose Romney," says Mike Buck, an Army veteran and born-again Christian dressed in grungy denim. "But overall, I really think people need to worry more about who they put in office for the Senate, because the president can't do anything without Congress."
In 2008, Buck asked God to send John McCain and Sarah Palin to the White House, but his prayers didn't pay off.
Buck is on the hunt for trucker caps. He is sorting through a bin of $2 headwear as the midmorning sunlight reflects off his sweat-soaked forearms. "I came down to pick up some Christian hats," he says between drags of a Bronco 100 cigarette. "I like to go out and meet other people, introduce them to Christ, and give 'em a hat."
He argues that there's "not enough faith" in politics. "I think that if this country would stand together, pray together, and vote for the proper people to be put into office, it would happen," he says.
But what would electing the first Mormon president do for women? we wondered. After all, females in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not eligible for the priesthood. And members including the Mittster continue to struggle with the negative stereotypes associated with the faith — polygamy, restrictive reproductive rights, special underwear, etc. — that may have a negative effect on Romney in the general election, especially among women.
"He doesn't know anything about them!" says Paulina Hernandez. She's in her early 20s, a first-generation Mexican-American who, together with her sister, helps her father sell tacos each weekend at the flea market in DeLand. "If [Romney] were in our shoes, he'd understand why some women need help and why he shouldn't take [rights] away from us."
She's referring to the GOP platform, which prides itself on stuff like banning abortions and all but promises to stamp the word whore on birth-control pills that may or may not be covered under Romney's assumed overhaul of "Obamacare."
Although Hernandez applauds the president's commitment to women's rights, as demonstrated by his pushing through the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, she doesn't buy the idea that either candidate is a magical solution to the country's problems.
With a devilish grin, she says, "I just feel like everyone needs to change for something to change. It doesn't matter [who the] president is."
Cynicism aside, Hernandez says she'll vote for Obama next week. Well, "maybe..."
About 100 yards behind the flea market is a heavily wooded area that some locals call "ground zero." A small group of people gathers around a battery-powered boom box to share a six-pack. Beneath the canopy of 100-year-old pine trees and the looming threat of a Florida black bear attack, they're listening to a static-y version of Styx's "Renegade" on 95.7 the Hog, "Daytona's Classic Rock Station!"
A few days ago, they tuned into the first presidential debate. "[Obama] screwed up," says Mark, a lifelong Democrat who wouldn't share his last name. "It was pretty bad."
For a 51-year-old, Mark's in great physical shape. He's a tall five-foot-nine, weighs probably close to 175 pounds, and has the brawny grip of a homeless mechanic, a profession he loved and lost.
"I'm not in the woods because I choose," he says.
That's been Mark's story for about eight years now. He lives "on a little hill that doesn't flood when it rains" and spends most of his days drinking warm beer and dreaming about the past.
In 2004, Mark was living in Orlando and making upward of $70,000, he contends, when someone swiped his tools. Shortly thereafter, he moved what few belongings he had left to Volusia County in an effort to resurrect his career.
"I sold my fucking Harley for $15,000, bought more tools, and got them stolen too in DeLand," he says. "That's why I'm in the woods."
According to Florida's 2011 Council on Homelessness report, nearly 57,000 Floridians live on the streets or in homeless shelters. Although the number was down by slightly more than 1 percent in 2011, homelessness in Volusia County rose to 2,214 from 2,076 in 2010.
Mark says the outcome of the November 6 election could affect his next meal. Romney has said that he wants to "get people off food stamps" by finding them "good jobs."
It's a noble campaign promise, Mark admits, but a difficult one to keep. "Who the hell's going to hire a 51-year-old mechanic who knows everything but has no tools? Nobody."
He's an Obama man.
Score: Obama — 2, Romney — 1
It's a sunny but uncomfortably humid early October afternoon in Apopka, a smallish city a little less than 15 miles from Orlando. The town is five times smaller than Orlando, but nearly 42,000 residents make it Orange County's second-largest municipality.
Mitt Romney is on his way here to deliver a stump speech from the stage of the Apopka Amphitheatre in a 180-acre multipurpose park off Ponkan Road.
Next to the parking lot, a young man dressed as Big Bird dolefully waves his right arm as a seemingly never-ending caravan of Romney supporters files through the entrance gate. With his free arm, the feathered demonstrator cradles a simple message printed on cardboard: "Cut Big Oil, Not Big Bird."
Just two days ago, Romney laid out his vision for America, focusing on a $445 million budget cut that would eliminate the government subsidy for Sesame Street's distributor, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — roughly .012 percent of the annual budget.
"It seems like people are generally supportive of Big Bird even if they love Romney," says the Apopka feathered freak.
Clearly he hasn't met Tom Baker, a larger-than-life anti-Obamaist standing 150 yards away near an unofficial campaign merchandise tent that peddles pro-Romney tchotchkes — stickers of the president and Joe Biden as Harry and Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber, "Nobama" pins, Paul Ryan's mug on a mug. Baker dismisses Sesame Street as just a cheap alternative to daycare. "If you want to educate your children, educate your children," Baker barks. "I have a lovely 3-year-old, incredibly intelligent, and I haven't turned PBS on once."
Instead, Baker educates his daughter by implanting bogus conspiracy theories into her pliant brain, like the one about President Obama not really existing.
"In a physical form, I can [prove that he does], but there're no school records," Baker inaccurately contends. "There's no birth certificate, there're no business records from when he worked in Chicago... All of his records have been paid for and hidden. Even Michelle's college records have been sequestered."
I point out that very little of this is true, but Baker's not buying it.
"My records are accessible," he says, "as well as yours."
They're not, but whatever. Baker obviously lives in a make-believe world where facts are created from nonsense and bound together by über-narrow-mindedness. Though he darts off before addressing bootleg Big Bird's complaints, something about him suggests he may oppose hobbling big oil.
Just a couple of hundred yards from Big Bird and Big Bullsh**, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey Atwater has taken to the open-air amphitheater stage at the Romney rally.
Under a banner calling for the repeal and replacement of "Obamacare" and in front of a campaign-funded backdrop reminder that "Florida Is Romney Country," he suggests EPA regulations are borderline unconstitutional. "The power of freedom gives us the greatest opportunity of all the world," he says. "That constitution is what I believe in."
And so does Mitt Romney, according to Atwater.
In fact, the Bain Capital cofounder interprets deregulated freedoms as big business building blocks. "[Romney] knows that a 39-year-old American by the name of Charles Goodyear vulcanized rubber, and he did it without the Department of Environmental Protection."
About an hour later, the Mittens finally waltzes onstage with his bride of 43 years, Ann. He delivers a 23-minute stump speech peppered with positions that change like baby's diapers to a rich white sea of 10,000 or so Central Floridians who just may swing the state's 29 electoral votes.
Eden Byler, a female Romney supporter from nearby Oviedo, is smitten. Not only does she think "He's the man we need for this country" but she also holds he is the better-looking candidate.
Still, she says, "It's the inside that counts. Mitt Romney's the man!"
Score: Romney — 3, Obama — 1 bird.
When Mike Buck encouraged us to "meet Jesus Christ" at some point along our road trip in DeLand, we brushed it off the same way we do Mormonism.
But then more people we spoke with started mentioning religion as one of the determining factors in Tuesday's presidential election. Take 69-year-old John DiCenzo of Orange City, a small burg just outside Sanford where Trayvon Martin was killed.
DiCenzo wears a quirky assortment of right-wing pins on his hat that boldly declare his political positions. A quick assessment tells me that he's unapologetically pro-life, pro-gun, and anti-Obama. DiCenzo says he'll vote for Mitt Romney because President Obama allegedly "never speaks up when Christians are attacked" but is "very much in defense of Islam."
"Anyone who has good moral values," he adds, "expects more out of a president than we've seen the past four years."
This made us wonder: What would Jesus do? So we headed southwest to the corner of Conroy and Vineland in Orlando, where a facsimile of God's only son is the main attraction at a Christian theme park called Holy Land Experience.
We paid the $40 for admission and passed through a replica of the Damascus Gate, the park's entrance. Built to look like Jerusalem circa 12 A.D. — but proudly serving Chick-fil-A sandwiches — this mega-blessed tourist trap is located not far from I-4's exit 75. Christ is resurrected here every Tuesday through Saturday at the 2,000-seat Church of All Nations around 4:15 p.m. He then helps out around the baptism pool until the park closes at 6.
After passing a casual cardboard version of Our Lord wearing blue jeans, a white T-shirt, and angel wings shaped like a heart, we found a disciple named Frank Grate who was on his fifth trip to the Holy Land Experience from Fort Lauderdale. He backs Mitt Romney and an end to all abortions.
"Who's going to choose for the baby?" Grate asked rhetorically.
"No, she shouldn't," he declares. "The baby should have his or her own rights."
That makes sense. Next, it's on to a quiet garden just outside of the Holy Land's main gate, where Kris Hoke of Orlando is also hoping Romney will triumph over evil. A sun-soaked middle-aged lady in a purple athletic tank top, she's worried that President Obama may eliminate "God" altogether. "I think it's important that [Romney] has the faith," she says. "I think it's important to keep 'In God We Trust' on the dollar bill."
Neither candidate has proposed eliminating that phrase.
Finally, four women from Orlando file out of the Holy Land Experience and into the parking lot. They're fired up and ready to go home after watching Jesus' crucifixion. "It was very powerful," says Laura Fisher. "I encourage anyone to come to the Holy Land."
Fisher works as a manager at McDonald's; she's as passionate about President Obama as she is the salvation of man and still gets goose bumps when she thinks about the country's first black president. "It's all about Barack Obama!" she yells joyfully, accentuating each syllable in the commander in chief's name. "It took all that time for Bush to mess it up; then Barack came in for four years, and he needs four more years to get it straight."
Corine Peterson, one of Fisher's friends, is a retired nurse from Orlando who, like her friend, will vote for Obama this year as well. "First, I'm not a Republican," she says. "And I think he's done a good job in four years being in that big mess."
Fisher adds, "Yay, Democrats!"
Soon, a dumpy 30-something in a powder-blue patrolman's uniform armed with a spiral reporter's notepad hurries past the exit and stops in front of a New Times reporter in the parking lot. "Who're you voting for in the presidential election?" the reporter asks with a smile, hoping to break the ice.
"You need to leave, sir," says Michael Cavallary, Holy Land's hired security.
Definitely a Romney supporter, we gather. "Right, would you mind helping us find our vehicle?"
Cavallary's at a crossroads: Honor thy badge or keep playing hardball. He chooses the latter and follows us around the parking lot for ten minutes until... oops, silly us! The car was right there all along. God provided.
Romney — 4, Obama — 2.
Daytona Beach's popularity among spring breakers has dwindled over the years. What was once an oasis of college coeds in barely there bikinis is now a sort of sleepy vacation rental stuck in 1984.
Sure, there're still wet T-shirt contests and binge drinking, but that sort of stuff happens only a few times a year. And as luck would have it, debauchery landed in Daytona about the same time as Mitt Romney on Friday, October 21.
Staring at a makeshift castle accented with two long "Florida is Romney Ryan Country" banners, it was easy to forget that just beyond the secure perimeter of the Daytona Beach Bandshell, bikers from around the world were pounding Bud by the keg and comparing switchblades with their newfound Biketoberfest buddies.
But then an ocean breeze carried a rogue waft of motor oil and methanol, and we were reminded that for this one weekend, Mitt Romney's hair wasn't the most exciting thing possible.
"Oh, this is a great added bonus," says Wayne Cunningham. "We're excited to see Mr. Romney."
Cunningham, who is in his 60s, bears a striking resemblance to Ernest Hemingway. He has puffy, rose-tinted cheeks, two big bear claws for hands, and a sweet gray-white beard. He and his brother Terry both live in Lakeland but are in Daytona for the motorcycle rally. When they found out Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would make an appearance, they sped over to the band shell.
Terry's a consultant for big oil. He thinks the EPA is public enemy number one. "I worked in the Gulf of Mexico until the spill," he says. "Then the moratorium came in; they shut us down."
Despite a consensus among scientists that global temperatures are rising, Terry is unconvinced. He believes the EPA and Department of Energy "cost a lot of money to operate" and only "inhibit the production of energy" through regulation. As far as Terry's concerned, "the environment's better off today than it was ten years ago."
For these reasons, he's voting for Romney.
And so is Danny Bzanos, an 18-year-old Daytona local voting in his first election. "I took ROTC for four years, so I'm more toward the Republican side," Bzanos says. "It opened my eyes to see that America's more like a business, and Romney's a businessman."
Alexander Westberry, also a first-time voter, is eager to cast his ballot for the Romnoid. "I don't like the way that our country's been going the last four years," Westberry says. "I don't like the debt, I don't like that [Obama] lied about closing Guantánamo Bay..."
Then there is Marcia Lapp, a pretty, wholesome-looking woman in her early 40s. "I'm scared for our country," she says, clenching husband Robert's right arm like the Apocalypse is minutes from unfolding. "I'm scared for the values of our country: Belief in God. Absolute belief in God."
Robert interjects, "I think [Obama] has Islamic tendencies, yes. It's all in the breeding, of which he has none."
Puzzled, we ask him to elaborate.
"I think he's a mulatto, if you want to know the truth. Facts are facts."
Romney — 6, Obama — 0.
Just northwest of the I-4 corridor about 130 miles from Walt Disney's whimsical Fantasyland, a simple Gainesville man with a white Fu Manchu mustache, low-pitched Southern drawl, and a promise to defend America is charting a course to the White House that is far different from either Obama's or Romney's.
Despite promises to reduce the national deficit, close the borders, and slash military funding "by several billion dollars," however, Terry Jones estimates his chances of winning the general election in November are "probably minus one" on a scale of ten.
"As I started the campaign," Jones says, "I was told that I could never possibly win because of the mustache."
After all, it's been more than 100 years since America elected William Howard Taft to office, the last president to sport facial hair inside the White House.
But a clean shave isn't Jones's only obstacle. On a platform built around anti-Islamic rhetoric and Evangelical Christian extremism, 60-year-old Jones announced his bid for the presidency on October 26, 2011, with an amateurish news release.
You may remember Jones. In late 2010, he made international headlines when his infinitesimal church began evangelizing that "Islam is of the Devil." Then he threatened to burn several copies of the Qur'an on the ninth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, prompting worldwide revulsion. Even United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Jones's plan "unacceptable."
On the streets of Karachi, several hundred protesters shouted "Down with American dogs" and hung "Death to America" placards around the city in response to the Gainesville pastor. A similar scene also erupted in Kabul, where protesters burned Jones in effigy and called for his head.
"I think politically it didn't make me popular," Jones says. "[But] I don't think it was a mistake. It was a very clear message to the radical element of Islam."
His campaign headquarters is located in a quiet neighborhood about seven miles from the University of Florida's main campus in Gainesville at his church, Dove World Outreach Center.
Inside the warehouse-like shell of Dove, Jones slips out of his Harley-Davidson T-shirt, jean shorts, and athletic shoes and into something more appropriate for a presidential hopeful.
Now wearing a charcoal pinstriped suit, matching tie, and loafers, the candidate invites us to his second-floor office, where a freshwater fish tank gurgles louder than a Guantánamo Bay prisoner being waterboarded.
"All men have equal rights," Jones says. "We believe in truth, justice, [and] morality. I call those normal human values, believing in civil rights and human rights... All of these things are basically void in Islam."
Jones doesn't have an agenda, unless you consider living by "certain foundational points" in the Christian Bible, like "God is the creator of mankind," an agenda. "If you call those Christian values, of course the answer would be yes.'' Terry Jones has a very fanciful agenda.
And just like the other candidates, he's asking for your vote, Florida.
Romney — 0, Obama — 0, Jones — 1.
Our road trip winds down on a cool-for-Florida fall evening at the 120-year-old Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando, "The City Beautiful." There are more runners tonight than usual circling the 23-acre lake — exercising really is so much more enjoyable when the humidity's not suffocating.
Diana Rodriguez, a quirky 22-year-old architecture student from nearby Seminole State College with bottom-lip rings and oversized, clear, plastic-framed glasses, is voting for Barack Obama. "I like equal rights for everyone," she says, "and that's what he's advocating."
Not far away, Hector Miranda, a service-engineering manager at Disney, and Laura Long, a sales professional, are debating the candidates. "I'm going to vote for Obama," Miranda says, his face widening as an infectious smile naturally escapes him. "He acquired a mess. I don't give an A; I give him a C on his last four years — passing grade. He's done a lot."
Long shoots him a flirty glance of disapproval and quickly fires back. "I'm most definitely voting for [Mitt Romney]," she says. "Barack is a very charismatic gentleman; I can appreciate that. He's likable, and I'm not saying he hasn't done good things. But I believe in Mitt Romney."
Miranda and Long are on their second date, and the chemistry between them — political differences aside — is both genuine and intense. In just two outings, they already seem to have mastered the foreign art of listening.
Keep that in mind, Florida.
As Romney and Obama make their final push for the Sunshine State's coveted 29 electoral votes, each campaign will try to obstreperously drown out the other party's message.
Pro-Obama ads outnumbered favorable Romney spots by a little more than 2,000 the week of October 15 to 21. Then the pro-Romney superPAC Restore Our Future kicked off a nearly $18 million multistate ad buy on October 23, including $4 million in Florida.
So how will Tuesday's vote end? Our unofficial, unscientific poll has Romney winning Central Florida and perhaps the nation in a landslide, 15 to 7. (Jones's Muslim-hating agenda drew a pathetic single vote.)
So maybe that tells you something. Then again, who in hell knows what is really gonna happen?