CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- 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.
Why it's a close race
Across the country, Associated Press reporters asked people to talk about their livelihoods before and after the December 2007-June 2009 recession and how those experiences have shaped their politics in the presidential election just days away. Their answers help illuminate why the race is so close. In this time of great polarization, their stories bridge the partisan divide, showing that resilience and optimism are shared traits, too, and that no one seems to think either candidate can work miracles.
"Our potential doesn't rely on an election and one man or even a ballot," said Ben McCoy, 35, of Wilmington, N.C., creative director for 101 Mobility, a company that sells, installs and services handicapped access equipment. "I don't think either candidate for president has the conviction to go as far as we need to go to really get back to stability."
Economic well-being, for him, will come from personal decisions by his wife and himself, not Washington. "We will roll up our sleeves and cut the family budget down to the core if we have to, where we know we're going to eat, and we know the lights are going to stay on, and that's it. We'll do it. We won't laugh and dance about it, but we'll do it."
In the Charlotte area, the recession played a cruel trick on Obama supporter Tamala Harris, wrecking the Charlotte housing market just after she quit a job to go into selling real estate. It drove Romney supporter Ray Arvin out of business selling industrial equipment from North Carolina and cleaned out his retirement savings with not that many years left to start from scratch. Both have more hope than you might think.
Harris, 38, is back in Charlotte after getting her master's in business from the University of Rochester in New York. During the worst of the calamity, she used loans and scholarships to advance her education, and looks back on it all as a time that made her dig deep.
"It made me realize what was important," she said. "It's just not the material things and having things to improve your status. I know that people are in such a rush to have things. They feel that is a validation -- 'Oh I have this, I have that.' I was one of them. So, for me, I found it was a time to reflect on your character -- and rebuild again. It was a wonderful time to realize when you don't have certain things -- money is not coming, or houses are not selling -- who's really in your corner."
Arvin, 47, is starting over, too.
In 2001, he and his wife bought a small company that sold equipment to power utilities and the aviation industry. Business hummed until 2007, when five big customers filed for bankruptcy and the couple raided their retirement and savings accounts to keep the enterprise afloat. It sank in 2009. Now he travels five states in a 2005 Suburban as sales representative for a business supplying equipment to electric and gas companies, bringing home $50,000 to $60,000 after taxes and travel expenses.
"Am I doing better? Yes. But I've lost so much. I'm starting new. I'm confident in my ability to work hard and do well with what I do."
Economy is No. 1 concern
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 3 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."
Everything in transition
In Atlanta, where she serves as event manager for her hotel, Ludlow puts no faith in Romney's ability to make the economy sound and offers less than ringing praise for the candidate she supports. "He may not personally be the smartest guy about the economy," she says of Obama, "but what I do appreciate is the fact that he knows when to listen to smarter people."
Her economic worries transcend politics of the moment. She ticks them off: "The long shift that we've had with the globalizing world, going from a manufacturing to a service economy. From a service economy to just a consumer economy, period, that buys more than it produces. And everybody having a job that can be done by a human being, but it's just more cost-effective to do it with a computer.
"All of those factors float around my head and keep me up some nights," she said. "The economy is (in) an incredible state of transition that we've never seen before. And nobody has any idea what it's going to look like. When the smoke clears, what are we going to be living in? And nobody seems to have an answer to that. Nobody knows. All you can do is put on a couple of Band-Aids here and try something there, and see what happens. And that makes me nervous."
If the recession played no favorites among the rich, the poor and those in between, the recovery did. Lost jobs and homes may not have come back, but the stock market did, favoring those whose wealth resided in investments.
Carol Clemens, a 66-year-old retiree from Edmond, Okla., and member of the local chapter of an investing club, put money into Ford shares near the bottom of the market in 2009, sold some and has seen the value of the rest grow fivefold. That eased her rough patch. "In short, we're not better off than we were in 2007, but neither are we destitute, for which we give thanks," she said. She's leaning toward Romney.
But investments and politics ebb and flow. Of more concern is the nation's future. She's the mother of grown children who "are not as conscious of saving as we were at their ages," and of grandchildren who are entering higher education. She laments class divisions played up in the campaign -- the stigmatization of the poor, the dissing of the rich -- and thinks the country needs a deeper fix than any one leader can achieve.
"Americans have got to start taking full responsibility for our messes," she said. "We vote in ineffective politicians, we tolerate second-rate educational systems, we envy those who have worked to have more and resent those who burden our social services because they have great needs.
"I would hope that the next president would have the guts to call us on our blindness and narrow visions," said Clemens. "We have to regain our ability to stop, consider and give a damn if we are going to change things."