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 Volusia, 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.