In 2016, Kelly Johnson’s yard was covered with Donald Trump signs and as recently as last Christmas she fiercely defended the US president in an argument with her parents.

But after the pandemic hit and the economy plunged into recession, the 48-year old from Pinellas County — one of Florida’s key political battlegrounds — underwent a swift and complete conversion: she is now backing Joe Biden for president and running as a Democrat for a seat in Florida’s House of Representatives.

Ms Johnson’s shift came after she lost both her jobs — one at a restaurant and another at a gym — leaving her as one of the 22m Americans who were unemployed in the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis. She began campaigning for the state to more rapidly disburse jobless benefits, and soured rapidly on Mr Trump as she began listening to his daily coronavirus press briefings.

“I was horrified. Here I am struggling — it’s not my fault, I worked my butt off — and this man, the head of our country, isn’t making good decisions for anybody”, she said.

Her about-turn highlights how Mr Trump’s most valuable weapon on the road to clinching a second term — his economic stewardship — has been blunted by the downturn that gripped America this year, and the devastation it brought to businesses and households.

The overall US jobless rate of 7.9 per cent is the highest for any incumbent president seeking re-election since World War II. According to this month’s FT-Peterson poll, 46 per cent of Americans believe Mr Trump’s policies have hurt the economy, compared to 44 per cent who said the policies had helped. Other national polling has also showed Mr Trump losing his edge on the issue.

Yet with little more than a week before the November 3 election, Mr Trump is still counting on the economy to rescue him from defeat: it remains his best chance to persuade undecided voters and rally his own supporters.

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The president’s argument is that he can return conditions to the exceedingly low unemployment rates that existed before the virus arrived while Mr Biden will destroy the recovery.

Map of Pinellas county Florida precinct votes in 2016 election

“If he gets in, you will have a depression the likes of which you’ve never seen. Your 401ks [pensions] will go to hell, and it’ll be a very very sad for this country,” Mr Trump said in last week’s final debate.

Mr Biden’s retort has been that Mr Trump’s bungled response to the virus has prolonged and deepened the economic damage; so too has the US president’s erratic stance on new fiscal stimulus after he failed to secure a deal with Democrats for a second relief package.

In Florida the political fight over the economy has been particularly raw because the state is heavily dependent on services like leisure, tourism and hospitality, which were hit by the early lockdowns and the second peak of infections in the summer. Now the crucial winter season is at risk as the pandemic endures, and worsens, in many parts of the US.

Line chart of Unemployment rate (%) showing Unemployment spiked in the Pinellas area due to coronavirus

“When the economic environment in the country is good. the economy in Florida is going to roar,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic political strategist in Florida. “When the country is in a recession, in a lot of ways Florida is in a depression. We tend to feel these things more acutely.”

He says the state’s electorate seems evenly split on economic arguments, which may be a good sign for Mr Biden. “I think if you call 10 voters you’re probably going to get five opinions on either side of that ledger,” he said.

But Republicans say Mr Trump can still count on plenty of support among conservative small business owners and voters in Pinellas county. “[Democrats] have promised higher taxes, they promise more government regulation. And I think both of those terrify small businesses, especially on the heels of Covid, where many of them are teetering on the brink” said Jeff Brandes, Republican state senator from Pinellas County. “I think Florida goes for Trump and I think Pinellas as well”.

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Pinellas County, along the Gulf Coast to the west of Tampa, is a particularly accurate political bellwether: it has reliably picked the winner of each presidential election since 1980, with the exception of George W Bush in 2000. Four years ago, Mr Trump won it by just over 1 percentage point. With Florida exceedingly close this year, Mr Biden will probably have to show solid gains in Pinellas, rather than just narrowly flip it, to prevail in the rest of the state.

History of Pinellas county Florida presidential voting

There are some signs that voter dissatisfaction with the economy is combining with Mr Biden’s nationwide gains among seniors, women, and the young to give the Democrat an edge in Pinellas county.

At the outset of the crisis this year, employment in the Tampa-St Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan region plummeted to its lowest levels since 2011, wiping out nearly a decade of job gains. The number of jobs has now caught up to where it was in January 2017, when Mr Trump’s tenure in the White House began. But unemployment, which was 3 per cent in February, is still way above that level at 6.8 per cent.

Bar chart of Mail votes, thousands showing Pinellas in top five Florida counties for mail-in voting

Cecelia Minor, a retired Verizon worker who voted for Mr Trump four years ago, is also flipping to Mr Biden this year. Before the pandemic hit, she was earning between $500 and $1,000 a week as a limousine driver to supplement her pension.

But that income abruptly dried up in March and emergency jobless benefits provided by the government ran out in July. She has had to dip into her savings, take out a small government-backed loan, and partly rely on her son’s food stamps for groceries.

She is back driving the limo, but earning much less than before. “I think [Mr Trump] is a frickin’ nutjob. I think he has totally mishandled Covid. I do think a lot of people have died because of him, because of his neglect”.

Sonny Flynn of Alligator Attractions © Gregg McGough/FT
Leslie Ciccone, owner of called Swah-rey cupcake shop in St Petersburg © Gregg McGough/FT

Leslie Ciccone, the owner of Swah-rey, a cupcake shop business in St Petersburg, said she had 21 employees before the pandemic hit, but now has just eleven, and her expansion plans have been put on hold.

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She is still dismayed that on a weekly basis three or four large trucks have been unloading boxes of food for needy families in the parking lot of the city’s Tropicana Field stadium, a sign of the economic distress in the area.

“I hope it gets people engaged. If there’s something good to come out of this, it’s hopefully that more people vote,” she said.

Swamp notes

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One very divisive issue affecting the presidential race in Florida has been the push by Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor and staunch ally of Mr Trump, for a rapid reopening of economic activities, and his lax approach to mask-wearing. While many Republicans in Florida support that stance, and fear Mr Biden would bring new shutdowns across the country, Democrats charge that Mr DeSantis’ laissez-faire coronavirus policies have reduced confidence among consumers, and imperilled worker safety.

According to the latest polling average, Florida remains very much up for grabs, with Mr Biden leading by just 1.5 percentage points. Mr Trump’s supporters say that in the absence of the pandemic, he would have cruised to victory in Pinellas and across the state based on his economic stewardship. But even with coronavirus, there is still enough confidence in Mr Trump to give him a shot.

“I don’t think anyone’s blaming him. If you ever come out here on Saturday afternoon, you’re going to see thousands of boats with Trump signs,” said Sonny Flynn of the Alligator and Wildlife Discovery centre at John’s Pass Village in Madeira Beach. “He can still campaign on ‘we had one of the best economies’.”

Graphics by Brooke Fox in New York

Via Financial Times