John McGinty's little slice of the American dream includes a family of four boys, ownership of a sports bar that fills up with Buffalo Bills fans on every autumn Sunday and a mortgage on a suburban Las Vegas house that's worth less than half of what he's paying for it.
On that last count, McGinty is by no means alone. CoreLogic, a company that tracks real estate data, says 64.7 percent of Las Vegas-area homeowners were "under water" early this year – meaning the value of their homes plunged so far that they owe more on the mortgage than the place is worth.
Welcome to Nevada, land of the endless Great Recession, where the 12.1 percent unemployment rate leads the nation and where President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, are fighting fiercely for six electoral votes and the loyalty of voters like John McGinty.
McGinty says Obama is a hard-working, decent man who was dealt a bad hand: the worst downturn since the Great Depression. But McGinty is still considering a vote for Romney out of fear that the problem that crushed Las Vegas – debt – could crush the nation, too.
"I need more time," said McGinty, 57, an Amherst native who moved to the Las Vegas area in 1979. "It may take me till November to decide."
That's a common sentiment among some of the few remaining undecided voters interviewed last week in this deeply divided swing state. And no wonder.
The choice, undecided voters and some experts said, pits a Democratic president who has tried and failed to end an economic nightmare against a Republican who might just make things better – or worse.
> Roller coaster ride
Of course, the real estate collapse that happened here and around the nation four years ago is not Obama's fault, nor Romney's.
It's the fault of a nation that turned its real estate market into Las Vegas – and left 60 percent of the homeowners in Nevada, and more than a third of those in Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Michigan, under water in the process.
The phenomenon never really hit Buffalo, but all the boom towns went on the same real estate roller coaster ride. As the government encouraged home ownership, banks took to bundling and selling off their mortgages in packages and relaxed lending standards along the way.
The result was evident in Las Vegas by the mid-2000s.
"All you had to do is be able to fog up a mirror to get a loan," recalled Kolleen Kelley, president of the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors.
Some people fogged up many more than one. George McCabe, a local public relations executive whose clients include home builders, recalls one woman who reported income of $80,000 a year and owned 12 homes. She made her money "flipping" properties for higher prices in a market gone mad.
Fueled by such speculation, the median home value in Las Vegas shot up from $205,200 in January 2004 to a peak of $315,000 in June of 2006.
But then came the financial crisis. Confidence fell, lending standards tightened, investors started bailing on their properties – and the median home price here plummeted to a low of $118,000 this January.
It's bounced back to $138,000 since then, but signs of the collapse can still be seen everywhere. Two would-be casinos on the Strip have stood unfinished for years. Started and abandoned developments dot the suburban landscape.
And at Johnny Mac's, John McGinty finds himself handing out the occasional free lunch and personal loan to loyal customers in need.
"I do what I can to help," McGinty said.
He does this while coping with a downturn in business and mortgage payments on a three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot home he bought for $495,000 in the mid-2000s that, he reckons, is worth about $210,000 today.
Countless Las Vegas homeowners, most of them speculators, have found themselves in McGinty's situation and walked away, intentionally defaulting on their mortgages, Kelley said.
But not McGinty.
"I'm from Buffalo," he said. "I'm not going to walk away and leave somebody else holding the bag."
Still, McGinty has it better than many here. Economic experts say the real estate crash wrecked consumer confidence and crushed the job market, leading to an unemployment rate that's three full percentage points higher than Buffalo's.
North Tonawanda native Art Nadler, 61, got laid off from his newspaper job in August 2011. Since then he's applied for 280 different jobs and gotten about 10 interviews.
"I've been told sometimes there are 50 or 100 people applying for the same job," Nadler said.
And just a few years ago, Las Vegas native Rosemarie Sharp was a dancer making $80,000 a year – enough, she thought, to afford a $317,000 home.
But now, at 40, she's unemployed and fighting off foreclosure.
In the meantime, she doesn't have much time for presidential politics.
"I haven't been keeping up on it," she said. "I don't have a TV anymore because I had to cut back on expenses."
> Frequent visits
On the other hand, Obama and Romney have had plenty of time for Nevada.
The president will arrive here today for three days of debate preparation; it's his ninth visit of the campaign. Romney, meanwhile, has been here six times.
Yet what they're offering voters could not be more different.
Obama sticks by the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which is aimed at curbing the excesses that caused the financial crisis. In addition, he touts elements of his 2009 stimulus bill that aimed to make it easier for troubled homeowners to refinance, or even to get lenders to agree to reduce the amount of principal on troubled loans, and criticizes Congress for not expanding the refinancing program as he suggested.
"Back in February, I sent Congress a plan to give every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgages by refinancing at lower rates," he said in his weekly address on Saturday. "It's a plan that has the support of independent, nonpartisan economists and leaders across the housing industry. But Republicans in Congress worked to keep it from even getting to a vote."
The trouble is, banks seem to be reluctant to take part in the original Obama refinancing and principal-reduction programs, said Kelley, head of the Realtors group. Besides, many troubled homeowners have second mortgages – and the holders of those loans are not cooperating.
"I've talked to some of the individuals trying to take part in these (Obama) programs; they apply, and nothing happens," said Stephen P.A. Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "What I've heard is that only 3 or 4 percent of the people who are under water have been able to take advantage of these programs."
For his part, Romney wants to repeal the Dodd-Frank law, saying it's so burdensome that lenders are now reluctant to make home loans. He also offers varying free-market proposals for addressing the Nevada housing crisis.
"Don't try to stop the foreclosure process," he told the Las Vegas Review Journal last October. "Let it run its course and hit the bottom."
And on a Sept. 21 trip to Sin City, the GOP nominee went a step further.
"The federal government has about 200,000 foreclosed homes they are holding onto," Romney said. "I'll make sure we get them sold, so every home is occupied, we fix our neighborhoods,"
The trouble with Romney's comments is twofold, Las Vegas-area economic experts and political pundits said.
First off, letting foreclosures move forward, or putting 200,000 more homes on the market all at once, very well could depress housing values further.
"It would devastate our pricing and make the whole economy worse," said Kelley, of the Realtors group.
On the political side, Romney's let-them-eat-cake comments on foreclosures reinforced the Democratic caricature of him as an out-of-touch plutocrat.
"It's a very bad sound byte for him," said Jon Ralston, a Buffalo native and longtime Las Vegas political reporter who now publishes RalstonFlash.com, a political newsletter.
> Ground game is key
Ralston finds it "astonishing" that Obama appears to have an edge in a state with a 12.1 percent unemployment rate, but that appears to be the case.
The latest Real Clear Politics average of polls in the Silver State finds Obama 3.8 points ahead, and political pundits say there are plenty of explanations for that edge.
"The state Republican party is very much a broken party," said David Damore, a UNLV political scientist. Party control swung to a faction loyal to Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, in May.
The result: the Romney campaign has had to build a get-out-the-vote effort from scratch to compete with a Democratic effort honed in Obama's 2008 victory here and the re-election of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid two years later.
"The Democrats have a very effective ground game," said former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, a Democrat who nonetheless said the race remains "too close for any comfort."
Obama is getting a boost, too, from the state's Hispanics, who now account for more than a quarter of the state population. Political pros here say heated GOP rhetoric on the immigration issue has helped propel the president to a 43-point lead among Hispanics in a Public Policy Polling survey last month.
"A lot of (Hispanics) don't understand how powerful the vote is," said Arianni Valencia, 20, a Romney volunteer who specializes in reaching out to the Hispanic community. "They're not even sure what it is to be a Republican or a Democrat. But they see the other side reaching out to them, and we're trying to catch up."
Besides, there's a sense among some voters here that Obama has worked hard and deserves another chance.
"I think he's done a good job so far," said Sandra Edwards, 62, a Cheektowaga native now living near Reno. "He's normal, like everyone else, and I think he's honest and smart."
Edwards and other Obama supporters also voiced some disdain for Romney – especially in wake of his comment that 47 percent of the people won't support him because they're dependent on government.
"Why would I put a Republican in?" asked Cindy Kelly, a Hamburg native who, with her husband Mike, is deeply under water on the Las Vegas condo they bought in 2008. "I'm not rich."
> Strong feelings
On the other side, though, there are equally strong feelings.
"Mitt Romney is the epitome of success," said Tom Fridmann, 67, a Buffalo native now living in Henderson. Citing Romney's business career and his stewardship of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, Fridmann said of Romney: "He is like Dudley Do-Right personified."
Jim Kelly, a 69-year-old Catskills native now living in Las Vegas, isn't quite so enamored of Romney – but he's especially disdainful of Obama.
"Barack Obama is a communist," Kelly said. "Just look at what he's done: socialized medicine, the takeover of private industry."
Despite the downturn in Las Vegas, Kelly and dozens of other football fans gathered at Johnny Mac's last Sunday to watch the Bills' win over the Cleveland Browns, and many seemed much more excited about football than politics.
"I don't think it makes much difference" who gets elected president, said Mark Rusnock, a 41-year-old Buffalo native and metalworker who, after three years of unemployment, is living with his retired father in Las Vegas. "Politicians are just puppets of the rich."
Similarly, New Jersey native Mike Mele, 46, said: "I'm waiting for a third party."
Let down by Obama, he's even more disdainful of Romney.
"If you're a poor person, Romney would make you want to puke," said Mele, a successful electrician who's not been impacted by the housing crisis.
Meanwhile, Sherman Conley, 71, seemed to sum up the thoughts of many of the dozens of Nevada voters interviewed last week by The Buffalo News.
"It's a critical election," said Conley, a Buffalo native, "and I've got to figure out who will do me the least amount of harm."
GRAPHIC: NEVADA AT A GLANCE
A deeply divided state where the boom went bust
Population: 2.72 million
Electoral votes: 6
Unemployment rate: 12.1%
Demographics: ?53.6 % White; 27.1 % Hispanic; 8.6% Black
2008 election: ?Sen. Barack Obama (D): 55.2% ?Sen. John McCain (R): 42.7%
Current polling average: ?President Obama 3.8% points.
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, ?U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Realclearpolitics.com.
GRAPHIC: THE GREAT RECESSION AND ITS AFTERMATH
Where the candidates stand
PRESIDENT OBAMA (D):
— Established programs aimed at making it easier for troubled homeowners to refinance their mortgages or to even reduce the amount they owe, but real estate experts say the programs have had limited impact.
— Backed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which aims to prevent banks from becoming "too big to fail" and bars them from owning or investing in hedge funds, private equity funds or trading operations. The bill also regulates the exotic financial instruments called "derivatives" that were implicated in the financial crisis. In addition, the bill created a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
— Wants to expand support to community colleges to aid in job training. While expanding federal funding for college grants and loans, the president has set a goal that the nation will have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.
MITT ROMNEY (R):
— Proposes putting the 200,000 foreclosed homes now held by the government back on the market. Also wants to encourage "short sales" – where troubled homeowners can sell their home for less than they own on it and the lender takes part of the loss – as an alternative to foreclosure.
— Wants to repeal the Dodd Frank financial reform law, saying it is getting in the way of banks who would otherwise lend to creditworthy borrowers. Would replace Dodd Frank with a "streamlined, modern regulatory framework" but has not specified the details of that plan. Also wants to amend the Sarbanes-Oxley accounting reform bill to relieve midsized companies of some reporting requirements.
— Proposes a broad reform and consolidation of federal job training programs, putting much more authority for their design in the hands of the states. Would encourage private-sector participation in college aid programs.
GRAPHIC: ABOUT THIS SERIES
Buffalo News Washington bureau chief Jerry Zremski is traveling ?to five "swing states" during the presidential election campaign ?to explore issues that are important to voters in Buffalo:
Today: Nevada and the Great Recession.
Oct. 7: Virginia and taxes.
Oct. 14: Florida and health care.
Oct. 21: Ohio and manufacturing
Oct. 28: TBD/the size and scope of government.