The Associated Press
Niagara Gazette — CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Here was Chas Kaufmann's life before the Great Recession: $28,000 in restaurant tabs in a year, cruises, house parties with fireworks. His Mr. Gutter business was booming in the Pennsylvania Poconos.
Now: "We mainly shop at Sam's Club and portion out our meals. We spend $4 to $5 a night on eating." He and his wife use space heaters in their elegant house and leave parts of it cold. The Hummer is gone, and he drives a 2005 pickup. On Nov. 6, Kaufman is voting for Mitt Romney.
Lower down the ladder, the recession put Simone Ludlow's life in a full circle. Laid off by an Atlanta hotel company in 2009, Ludlow, 32, bounced from job to job for two years, got by with a "very generous mother," still makes do by renting a room in a house owned by friends, and is back working for the company that had let her go. She's voting for President Barack Obama.
For four years, the bumpy economy cut an uneasy path. It raked small towns and big cities, knocked liberals and conservatives on their backs, plagued Republicans and Democrats alike.
It was the worst economic setback since the Depression, and it didn't take sides.
Polls consistently find that the economy is the top concern of voters, and Romney tends to get an edge over Obama when people are asked who might do better with it. Whether that truly drives how Americans vote is a crucial question for Election Day.
Other factors often came into play with the people who talked to AP. Republicans didn't buy the Romney campaign's portrayal of Obama as a one-man wrecking crew in economic affairs. Democrats didn't see him as a savior. They all realize life is more complicated than that.
Beth Ashby, 38, an artist and freelance photographer in North Hollywood, Calif., is a registered Democrat who thinks Obama is bad for her savings. If he's re-elected, she said, "I think I'm going to be less likely to set money aside in my investments. I might be safer just storing it in the shoe box under the bed."
Romney, she said, "seems to have a head for business." But he's turned her off on environmental issues, abortion and "some of his comments involving women." Obama or a third-party unknown will get her vote.
Dave Hinnaland, 51, a fourth-generation sheep and cattle rancher who co-owns the family's 17,000 working acres outside Circle, Mont., simply seems hard-wired to vote for a Republican president. As the national economy sank, the local economy shot ahead thanks to booming oil production in the Bakken oil fields to the east. The days of $300-a-month house rentals, when people's pickups were more expensive than their homes, are over.
"When this area was settled 100 or more years ago, there were people who took a chance and moved out here," he said. "They worked hard and were able to build something for themselves and their families."
So his message to all in Washington: "Let us have the means and options to chart our own path. Don't hamstring us with rules and regulations. And let people that are willing to go out to work take a chance, let them have the opportunity to do it. We don't need a big hand hovering over our head telling us what we can and cannot do."
If the recession spared oil and gas lands, Kaufmann, of Kunkletown, Pa., saw it coming in the gutter trade, specifically when he started noticing that nearly all of his customers' checks were drawn on home equity credit lines.
"How long do you think this is going to last?" he recalled asking his wife. "I said, 'I just did a homeowner, the wife lost her job, and without her job, he can't afford the mortgage.' That's when we started buckling down. I said, 'You know what? It's time.'
"What happened is, the banks overextended all these people. People were buying clothes, putting in in-ground pools, putting gutters up where they didn't need to be replaced. I was putting gutters up when people didn't need gutters. I would tell them. But they wanted to change the colors. You ride by those houses now and they either have three feet of grass or the windows are boarded up."
His gross income has been halved since 2006 and 2007. No cruises since he turned 60 five years ago.
Cruises aren't on the horizon for Cristian Eusebio, 20, either. He makes $10.50 an hour as a bank teller in Springdale, Ark. He lives at home with a father who works at a food-packaging plant that's been cutting staff and a mother who found work at a warehouse store. The family refinanced before their home mortgage ballooned, skipped a vacation to pay down a debt and pinched pennies.
"It could have gotten worse, but it got better because my mom got a job, my sister got a job and then later in high school, I got a job," he said. "It has gotten better, but I think it's just because more of us are working. Some of us pay one bill. The other one pays another."