STOCKTON Four years ago, as the home foreclosure crisis ravaged this city but long before it went bankrupt, Barack Obama outperformed the Democratic registration advantage here and carried San Joaquin County by more than 10 percentage points.
Obama will surely win Democrat-heavy California again this year, and he may win in the Central Valley.
But this electorate is changed, deeply colored by the recession and skeptical of the president's ability to improve the economy. Home values have plunged, and the unemployment rate in San Joaquin County over the course of last year was nearly 17 percent.
"It's a nightmare," said Nate Werth, who at the time of Obama's election lived with his wife and daughter in a house they owned in central Stockton. "I've experienced that firsthand."
Werth, 39, was laid off in 2009 from his job as a program manager for the county courts. He remained unemployed for about two years.
"The second year of it," Werth said, "was the year where it was just depression. I was so beat up because I just couldn't find anything."
Though Werth and his family could "humbly get by" on his unemployment benefits and his wife's salary, he said "it became very, very evident that even after I started working that we weren't going to be able to sustain our house and keep up the lifestyle that we wanted to keep up."
At a job fair recently at University of the Pacific, near the house Werth used to own, companies accepted résumés and distributed candy, and one set up a sign that read, "Yes, we are growing. Yes, we are hiring."
Perhaps 100 unemployed people lined up outside, among them Joshua Ramey, who has been unable to find work in the construction industry since the housing market crashed.
Ramey, a 23-year-old Republican, yearns for a more limited government and will vote for Mitt Romney. Ramey is seeking income in part so that he might leave his parents' home. He is thinking about moving to Tennessee to find a job.
At the job fair, too, was Dorcil Jones, 35, who moved in with her parents in January. She will vote for Obama because "his intent is great," she said, though she finds his execution "iffy."
"I've been on welfare now for two years," she said. "I never pictured myself ever being in this type of situation."
'Kind of a hopelessness'
Werth's wife, Sarah West, is a schoolteacher. He proposed to her on the stoop of their home. It was their second house in Stockton.
"I'll never forget this moment ... one of those kick-your-own-ass sort of moments," he said. "Sarah and I sold our first house, which was this little tiny starter house it was like 700 square feet tiny little shack down on Oak Street, and we, the evening that it sold and everything went through, and Sarah and I are sitting there looking at our computer screen, and there's, we made like $130,000 profit from that house."
He said he knew the price was inflated, that the market was "ridiculous." They bought again, anyway.
Miscalculations were typical in this city of nearly 300,000 people. The city itself, wrongly assuming sustained housing growth, over-extended on employee benefits and on a multimillion-dollar redevelopment of Stockton's downtown.
Earlier this year, Stockton became the largest city in America to file for bankruptcy protection.
"When the economy tanked, it hit us even worse than any other places," said Ann Johnston, the city's mayor. "Here it's not just a recession, it borders on a depression."
Johnston is a Democrat and will vote for Obama in November. She is frustrated, however, with an administration and Congress she said could have relieved the housing crisis by forcing banks to modify home mortgages.
Improving tax receipts, business openings and the construction of a prison medical facility suggest to Johnston the economy is improving, but she laments a "different kind of cynicism" she said has taken hold.
"It's kind of a hopelessness that anybody is really going to be able to change a lot of anything," she said.
Playing by new rules
Werth, West and their daughter, 4-year-old Morgan Westwerth, could have stayed in their central Stockton home. But it was too small for their growing family, Werth said, and the burden of the mortgage became too heavy.
"You have to bear in mind that my wife and I are people who have never had a bad credit score in our lives, and we are very proud of that, and we are, you know, normal, decent, upstanding citizens who think you have to pay your bills, and you have to take care of those sorts of things in life," Werth said.
"So to drop out of such a huge investment is not only emotionally taxing for you because it's your home, but it's also emotionally taxing because you're, you know, essentially reneging on the biggest purchase of your life."
Werth and his wife sold the home through a short sale. The rules of the housing market had changed, Werth said, "and the way that we ended up justifying it to ourselves was that you have to play ball with the rules that you're given."
Werth calls the Central Valley "California's Midwest," and San Joaquin County, though Democratic leaning, is relatively conservative.
Obama carried the county by a wide margin in 2008, but in the gubernatorial election two years later, the Democratic candidate, Jerry Brown, defeated Republican Meg Whitman by fewer than four percentage points.
The weakness of the economy is reflected in voter turnout: Since the recession, said county Registrar of Voters Austin Erdman, thousands of sample ballots have been returned unopened to his office from homes that went into foreclosure.
Earlier this year, Werth and his family moved from the house they owned to one they could rent nearby. It costs $600 a month less, and it has more room and a pool. He describes the move as a "relief."
"We still don't feel exactly right about how we did it, but at the same time, based on the rules of the system these days, we don't see how else we could have," he said.
"It's funny, just this morning, actually, Sarah and I were having a cup of coffee and sitting at our computers, respectively, and she was looking at her credit score, and she said, 'Damn,' she's like, 'I have a poor credit score right now ... I've never had a poor credit score in my life,' and she was like, she was near tears because of it, because that's important to us.
"But, you know, that will go away in time."
'Are you better off?'
At the job fair, Anthony Enos, a 43-year-old heavy equipment operator who worked most recently as a cashier at Target, said America has "too many laws and rules, and that's why there's no investment between government and private enterprise."
Enos, a Republican, will vote for Romney in the fall.
Werth, a Democrat, will vote again for Obama.
"One of the prominent sayings that you hear from a lot of the Republican side these days for this election is, 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' And the answer for me is 'Yes,' " Werth said.
"But that's not really what they're asking, in my opinion. They're not asking you if you're better off than you were four years ago. They're asking if everything is perfect now, did he fix, magically, everything over four years. Well, of course he didn't, and that's why it's an easy question for them to ask, because of course that's not true. That's never going to be true."
The preliminary unemployment rate in San Joaquin County in August dipped to 14.3 percent, still above the statewide average but a positive sign here. Not since May 2009 had the unemployment rate dropped so low.
Werth has found contract work writing grants. He hopes to buy a new house eventually, perhaps the one he and his wife are renting.
He will stay in Stockton, a city he said "definitely is pretty battered and bruised." Werth said you could move anywhere in the United States and "pretty much find roughly the same thing, the same level of life."
But in places Werth thinks are really nice Palo Alto, for example, or San Francisco "what you find is that there's a lot of people that are already in those areas that are already doing good."
"In a place like Stockton, there are not as many people who are out there doing what I want to be doing with my life, and it's definitely an area that needs that," he said.
"And that's what I've kind of come to fall in love with in Stockton. It's, I don't want to sound like an abused girlfriend here, but it's like it needs help. The place needs a hand."
WHERE THEY STAND
The candidates for the U.S. presidency on jobs and the economy:
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
Proposes to reduce payroll taxes for businesses and provide tax incentives to businesses that add jobs.
Proposes to focus on increasing U.S. exports, with a goal of creating 1 million new manufacturing jobs in the next four years.
Advocates continued investment in public projects and renewable energy, which he says has created thousands of jobs.
Proposes to reduce the deficit by, among other things, returning to Clinton-era tax rates for America's highest earners.
Quote: "The truth is, we've had problems that have been building up for decades jobs being shipped overseas, paychecks shrinking even when the cost of everything is going up. So for the last four years, we've been working to start restoring that basic bargain that says, if you work hard, you can get ahead. But we've got a lot more to do."
FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY
Proposes to make permanent, across-the-board cuts in marginal tax rates, and to reduce the corporate tax rate to 25 percent.
Proposes cutting non-security discretionary spending by 5 percent and repealing the national health care overhaul.
Proposes stronger trade relationships with countries in Latin America, while taking a harder line on China and curtailing what he says are that country's unfair trade practices.
Advocates increasing domestic oil production by streamlining permitting for exploration and development, and approving the Keystone XL pipeline.
Quote: "Obamanomics is a failure. With little private-sector experience, President Obama turned to the only thing he really knew: government. His distrust and antipathy for the private sector led to policies that burdened and constrained business at the very time we needed it to advance, to invest, and to hire."
Source: Bee research