LAS VEGAS — Amy and James Watt know there are a lot of important issues in this year’s presidential election, but for them it hinges on just one: their home.
They never thought it would come to this when they bought their dream home, a three-bedroom with a large garage on a corner lot in suburban Henderson, Nev.
Three years later, here they are, six months behind on their mortgage — part of a housing crisis that has devastated Nevada.
So they look to the presidential candidates for some kind of plan to set things right. And they don’t see one.
“I know Obama was left with a lot, but he sure hasn’t made it better,” said Amy, 63. “I voted for him last time. But I just can’t do Obama again.”
And while she and James, 66, plan to vote for Romney, they are not confident he will be able to help break the state’s economic fall. “I’ll give him a shot, but sometimes I wonder whether any of them is any good,” Amy said, as her husband nodded in agreement.
The retired couple is hardly unusual in Nevada. A catastrophic drop in prices has left nearly 70 percent of mortgage holders in this state owing more than their homes are worth, a loss they are unlikely to recover for decades.
For many of these hard-pressed homeowners, the nation’s slow-motion economic recovery has been mostly invisible, and when Election Day rolls around they are likely to vote their desperation.
The dire situation seems ripe for promises of change from the two presidential candidates working feverishly to win this critical swing state. Instead, the policies they espouse offer little to struggling Nevadans.
The pitches reflect the fundamental difference between the candidates: One wants the government to help. The other wants the market to work.
President Obama has rolled out programs that the administration says have touched thousands of homeowners in Nevada and more than 5 million nationally, but yet have failed to reverse the sharp decline in housing values.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said government should get out of the way and allow prices to collapse so the housing market can move more quickly to recovery.
“Don’t try and stop the foreclosure process,” Romney told the Las Vegas Review-Journal earlier this year. “Let it run its course and hit the bottom. Allow investors to buy homes. Put renters in them. Fix the homes up and let it turn around and come back up.”
Neither approach has much appeal to Nevadans desperate for financial relief.
“We found a house we wanted, and we would hate to lose it,” Amy said at a foreclosure prevention workshop run by the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. The sentiment echoed that of eight other struggling homeowners in the room.
Nevada is among a handful of battleground states where the fragile health of the economy — and who voters think can best heal it — is likely to determine the outcome of the fall election.
The stark difference in how the two candidates view the role of government in shaping the economy will be a critical factor as they tailor their messages to the swing states, each with distinct economic challenges.
In Wisconsin and Ohio, an uptick in manufacturing jobs aided by the government-funded auto company bailouts has helped push jobless rates below national averages. But that recovery has come after more than a decade of steep declines in factory work that has crimped prospects for the middle class.
Much of Virginia has been insulated from the worst of the downturn by federal spending, particularly in defense and homeland security. But with large budget cuts looming at the end of the year unless Congress and the White House can agree on an alternative, analysts warn that the state’s economy would take a big hit.
Meanwhile, Florida and Nevada have been pummeled by the steep decline in housing prices, which has all but halted the rapid growth that once fueled those state economies.
Leading the housing decline
Nevada carries just six of the 270 electoral votes the candidates need to win in November, but it is central to the ambitions of both Obama and Romney. The state also epitomizes the wild swings the U.S. economy has experienced in the past decade and the daunting task awaiting any candidate promising to restore past prosperity.
Since the housing crash, Nevada has led the nation in foreclosure, personal bankruptcy and unemployment rates.
The ongoing economic problems have unsettled many voters, and Obama strategists quietly worry that their candidate is in more trouble here than in any other Western battleground state.
Obama won Nevada by more than 12 percentage points four years ago. But even with the president’s decided advantage among the state’s rising number of Hispanic voters, recent polls show him running neck-and-neck against Romney, whose central campaign promise is to make the economy run better than it has under Obama.