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The state of Florida that could decide the US election

In 2016, Kelly Johnson's garden was covered by Donald Trump signs, and as recently as last Christmas, she fiercely defended the US president in an argument with her parents.

But after the pandemic hit and the economy plunged, the 48-year-old from Pinellas County – one of Florida's most important political battlefields – underwent a quick and complete conversion: she now supports Joe Biden for president and runs as a Democrat for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives.

Johnson's shift came after she lost both jobs – one at a restaurant and another at a gym ̵

1; leaving her as one of the 22 million Americans unemployed in the first weeks of the Covid-19 crisis. She began fighting for the state to pay out unemployment benefits more quickly, and quickly sank into Trump as she began listening to his daily coronavirus press conferences.

“I was horrified. "I'm struggling here – it's not my fault, I withdrew – and this man, the head of our country, does not make good decisions for anyone," she said.

Her conversely highlights how Trump's most valuable weapon on the road to another era – his economic governance – has been blunted by the downturn that hit America this year, and the devastation it led to businesses and households.

The total unemployment rate in the United States of 7.9 percent is the highest for any sitting president who wants re-election since World War II. According to this month's FT-Peterson poll, 46 percent of Americans believe that Trump's policies have hurt the economy, compared to 44 percent who said the policies had helped. Other national polls have also shown that Trump is losing his edge on the issue.

Still, with just over a week to go before the November 3 election, Trump still trusts that the economy will save him from defeat: it is still his best chance to persuade undecided voters and rally his own supporters.

The president's argument is that he can return the conditions to the extremely low unemployment that existed before the virus arrived while Biden wants to destroy the recovery.

  Map of Pinellas County Florida District Votes in 2016 Election

“If he comes in, you'll have a depression you've never seen. "401ks [pensions] will go to hell, and it will be very sad for this country," Trump said in last week's final debate.

Hr. Biden's response has been that Trump's confused response to the virus has prolonged and widened the economic damage; it also has the US president's erratic attitude to new fiscal stimulus after he failed to secure an agreement with Democrats on a new aid package.

In Florida, the political battle for the economy has been particularly brutal because the state is heavily dependent on services such as leisure, tourism and hospitality, which were hit by the early lockdowns and the second peak of summer infections. Now the crucial winter season is in jeopardy as the pandemic lasts and worsens in many parts of the United States.

  Line diagram of unemployment (%) showing unemployment increased in the Pinellas area due to coronavirus

“When the economic environment in the country is good. the Florida economy is going to roar, ”said Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic political strategist. "When the country is in a recession, Florida is in many ways depressed. We tend to feel these things more acutely.

He says that the state's voters seem evenly distributed on economic arguments, which may be a good sign for Mr Biden. "I think if you call 10 voters, you'll probably get five opinions on each page of the general ledger," he said.

But Republicans say Trump can still count on plenty of support among conservative small business owners and voters in Pinella County. "[Democrats] has promised higher taxes, they promise more government regulation. And I believe both of those awful small businesses, especially on the heels of Covid, where many of them are faltering, says Jeff Brandes, a Republican state senator from Pinellas County. "I think Florida goes for Trump, and I think Pinellas too."

Pinellas County, along the Gulf Coast west of Tampa, is a particularly accurate political bellwether: it has reliably chosen the winner of every presidential election since 1980, with the exception of George W Bush in 2000. Four years ago, Trump won it by a little over 1 percentage point. With Florida very close this year, Mr Biden will likely have to show solid gains in the Pinellas, instead of just turning it around, to win in the rest of the state.

  The Story of Pinellas County Florida Presidential Voting

There are some indications that voter dissatisfaction with the economy is being combined with Mr Biden's nationwide gain among seniors, women and youth to give Democrats a lead in Pinellas County.

At the beginning of the crisis this year, employment in the Tampa-St Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area fell to its lowest levels since 2011, wiping out nearly a decade of labor gains. The number of jobs has now caught up to what it was in January 2017, when Trump's term in the White House began. But unemployment, which was 3 percent in February, is still well above that level of 6.8 percent.

  Bar graph of Mail votes, thousands showing Pinellas in the five largest Florida counties for post-in-voting

Cecelia Minor, a retired Verizon worker who voted for Trump four years ago, also flips to Mr Biden this year. Before the pandemic hit, she earned between $ 500 and $ 1,000 a week as a limousine driver to supplement her retirement.

But the income suddenly dried up in March, and acute benefits from the government ended in July. She has had to dip into her savings, take out a small government-subsidized loan, and partly rely on her son's food labels for groceries.

She drives the limousine back, but earns much less than before. “I think [Mr Trump] is a frickin 'nut job. I think he's completely abused Covid. I think many people have died because of his neglect ".

Sonny Flynn from Alligator Attractions © Gregg McGough / FT
Leslie Ciccone, owner of the so-called Swah-rey cupcake shop in St. Petersburg | © Gregg McGough / FT

Leslie Ciccone, the owner of Swah-rey, a cupcake shop in St. Petersburg, said she had 21 employees before the pandemic hit, but now has only eleven, and her expansion plans are on hold.

She is still appalled that three to four large trucks have unloaded crates of food for needy families weekly in the parking lot of the city's Tropicana Field Stadium, a sign of economic hardship in the area.

“I hope it engages people. If there is anything good to get out of this, it is hopefully more votes, "she said.

Swamp Notes

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A very divisive issue affecting the Florida presidential race has been pressured by Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor and loyal ally of Trump, for a rapid reopening of economic activities, and his lax approach to masking. While many Republicans in Florida support this position, fearing that Biden will lead to new closures across the country, Democrats accuse DeSanti & # 39 ;s laissez-faire coronavirus policies of undermining consumer confidence and hampering workers' safety.

According to the latest poll by Realclearpolitics.com, Florida is still very busy, with Biden leading by only 1.5 percentage points. Trump supporters say in the absence of the pandemic, he would have run for victory in Pinellas and across the state based on his economic governance. But even with the coronavirus, there is still enough confidence in Trump to give him a shot.

“I do not think anyone owes him. If you ever get out here on Saturday afternoon, you'll see thousands of boats with Trump signs, "said Sonny Flynn of the Alligator and Wildlife Discovery Center at John & # 39 ;s Pass Village in Madeira Beach. "He can still fight for & # 39; we had one of the best economies & # 39 ;."

Graphics by Brooke Fox in New York

Video: Elections in the USA 2020: coronavirus and the Battlefield States

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