LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - The slot machines jangle away with the promise of sudden riches, but many visitors to a job fair at a second-tier casino here are hoping merely for a minimum-wage job to snap their losing streak.
The grim economy hasn’t been the only disappointment of the past several years for those hoping to find work with the limousine companies, insurance agencies and home healthcare providers that have set up shop at this career fair.
Ask Kimberly Howard who she voted for in 2008, and she glances sideways before confiding what appears to be a shameful secret. “Obama,” she mutters.
It’s not a choice she plans to repeat next year. She thinks perhaps Republicans will do a better job of fixing the economy. “I hope so. I’m praying so,” she says quietly.
In order for President Barack Obama to win reelection next year, he will have to convince voters like Howard to give him another chance, particularly in battleground states with high unemployment like Nevada, which the president visited on Monday.
The unemployed, long an afterthought in political campaigns, could emerge as a surprise swing constituency next year. For decades, conventional wisdom was that the unemployed did not vote as much as those with jobs.
But new research based on the current economic slump shows a different picture. People who have lost their jobs are nearly twice as likely to switch support from incumbents, according to Andrew Healy, an economist at Loyola Marymount University.
Examining local layoff notices around the 2008 election, Healy found in an national study that 39 percent of the newly unemployed who had backed the incumbent party in the prior election switched their support to the opposition, compared with only 20 percent of other voters.
That helped Obama win Republican-leaning states like Indiana in 2008, but could put him on the defensive this time in states like Nevada and Michigan, where jobless households could make up a substantial portion of the electorate.
During the last two elections as the economy has stagnated, those who have lost their jobs have actually voted at a higher rate than the employed, according to national research being developed by Matthew Incantulpo, a graduate student at Princeton University.
He found that those who lost their jobs before the 2008 and 2010 elections had turnout rates roughly 7 percentage points higher than a control group of voters who lost their jobs shortly after the election. In 1996, when the economy was healthy, the newly unemployed had turnout rates 10 percentage points lower than the control group.
The economic downturn has hit especially hard among large swaths of the coalition that powered Obama to victory in 2008, and many of those voters could have a hard time squaring his promises of hope and change with their own struggles.
“I don’t see any changes he’s made that have been positive for people,” Howard says as she fills out an application form. “He keeps saying ‘more jobs, more jobs,’ but I’ve been out of work for four months and I’m not seeing any improvement.”
The shaky economy is expected to be the dominant issue in the November 2012 election. Those who have personal experience with job loss could make up a significantly larger chunk of the electorate than the official 9.1 percent unemployment rate would suggest.
In last year’s congressional elections, a historic rout for Obama’s Democrats, nearly one in three voters had experienced a job loss in their households, according to exit polls.
Next year’s election could see a similar pattern as the jobless rate is projected to remain above 8 percent.
Obama aims to convince voters he is a better bet to boost the economy than his eventual Republican rival. Since September, he has been campaigning on his American Jobs Act, which has been blocked by Republicans in Congress.
“The President brought the economy back from the brink of another depression and he has fought for a fairer economy that rewards hard work and responsibility,” said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. “He is fighting every day to create jobs and restore economic security for the middle class.”
That argument doesn’t carry much weight with those at the job fair who backed Obama in 2008.
“He could have done a lot more from what he promised at the beginning and I just haven’t seen it happen,” says Augistin Zaragosa, 49. “The help that he gave us all a couple years ago, that was basically nothing.”
Democrats’ traditional allies in the labor movement are trying to mobilize the unemployed.
With the help of the Service Employees International Union, Linda Overby, an out-of-work painter in Las Vegas, has been organizing protests at the local offices of Republican lawmakers who oppose Obama’s jobs bill.
Participation has grown as the protests have harnessed the anger many feel about Republican efforts to erode workers’ rights, she said, and the Occupy Wall Street has helped to raise awareness as well.
“I am seeing people start to wake up,” Overby said.
But increased activism does not necessarily equal increased support for Obama.
The International Association of Machinists counts 10,000 to 15,000 members in its Union of Unemployed, an effort to counteract the sense of isolation that can come with job loss and push for policies that would help those looking for work.
The group views Obama’s jobs bill as a mixed bag, and an unscientific survey found widespread dissatisfaction with his presidency, even among Democrats.
“These folks are the swing voters of the next election cycle,” said Rick Sloan, the group’s executive director. “If they don’t see any change in their lives, they’re going to vote for a change.”
Obama’s bill would continue enhanced unemployment benefits in place since 2009 but that would do nothing for those who have been jobless for so long they have already exhausted them, Sloan said.
Sam Guy, a 24-year-old who hopes to find work in the insurance industry, said he hasn’t decided how to vote next year. But his enthusiasm for Obama has waned. “I’m not rolling around with a bumper sticker this time,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lily Kuo; Editing by Alistair Bell and Todd Eastham