Inflation's Impact On Florida Voters : The NPR Politics Podcast Pinellas County, on Florida's west coast, is unique: it backed the winning presidential tickets in 2012, 2016 and 2020, throwing support to Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, respectively. How are voters from different political sides thinking about the elections in a place where inflation is among the highest in the country?

Read more reporting from Florida.

This episode: political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben, White House correspondent Asma Khalid, and economic correspondent Scott Horsley.

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Inflation's Impact On Florida Voters

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TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey there. It's Tamara Keith from the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. And I am so excited because we are getting ready to go back out on the road. And Houston, you're up first. Join Susan Davis, Asma Khalid, Ashley Lopez, Domenico Montanaro and me at Zilkha Hall on Thursday, September 15. You can find more information about tickets, including for students, at nprpresents.org. Thanks to our partners at Houston Public Media. We hope to see you there.

LEON: (Playing ukulele).

Hi. This is Leon (ph). I'm learning the ukulele right now...

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Oh, wow.

LEON: ...And practicing this tune that's really beginning to annoy my family.

(LAUGHTER)

LEON: You're listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, which was recorded at...

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

(Laughter) I'm sorry. 1:09 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, August 19, 2022.

LEON: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll still be practicing this tune and eventually add lyrics better than this. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KHALID: I kind of love that.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm so sorry I laughed. I was just so delighted by that.

KHALID: I really look forward to hearing his lyrics.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

KHALID: Maybe they could be dedicated to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: And we are always thrilled to have our friend Scott Horsley here with us from our business desk. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Great to be with you all.

KURTZLEBEN: And today we are going to turn our attention to Florida, where both a Senate seat and the Governor's Mansion will be on the ballot in November. And Asma, you just traveled there. And we are going to hear all sorts of your reporting from there.

Now, one of the factors in those races for the Governor's Mansion and that Senate seat and one of the factors in politics across the country is inflation - the cost of living, the cost of housing, of groceries, how wages aren't keeping up with all of those things. So, Scott, let's start with you. What are some of the things that are causing inflation to increase?

HORSLEY: Well, prices in July were up about 8.5% from a year ago. That's actually down from June, when inflation was at 9.1%. But it's still too high for comfort. And some of the things that are contributing to that are food prices, which are still going up. Housing is also getting more expensive. The good news is gas prices have come down a bit from their record high in June. But unfortunately, housing costs tend to be stickier than food or energy prices. Those often bounce around a lot.

KURTZLEBEN: And is it different factors that are causing housing and food and all of those things to be going up, or is it something that's contributing to all of those things?

HORSLEY: Well, when it comes to gasoline prices, we saw them spike this spring following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. When it comes to food prices, you're still seeing supply chain disruptions. Some of that is tied to the war in Ukraine. Some of that's still lingering effects of the pandemic. With housing, there are different factors. We've basically got a supply and demand problem where we just haven't built enough housing. And then we've also got people moving around to different parts of the country.

The overall inflation problem is certainly not unique to the United States. Inflation in the eurozone last month was actually higher than here in the U.S. In the U.K., inflation topped 10% in July. There are different factors at play in different parts of the world, but as I say, a lot of this has to do with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. So, Asma, let's get to the politics of this. As I said, you spent some time in Florida; in particular, some time in the St. Petersburg area and on the state's west coast near Tampa. Inflation is affecting a lot of Americans. So I'm wondering, why did you go to that particular place to talk to voters about inflation?

KHALID: So I went down to Pinellas County, which I should point out is not really competitive in the midterm elections because the maps there in Florida have been redrawn by the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who has a lot of support among Trump voters. So to me, this area, Pinellas County - which is where you can find Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Fla. - it is a fascinating place both politically and economically. Pinellas County itself is known as one of these so-called boomerang counties - which I should point out are very, very rare nowadays - meaning that voters there chose President Obama, then they went for President Trump and subsequently President Biden. So it's a real kind of political mix of voters that you'll find there.

And then when we talk about the economy, the broader Tampa metro area, inflation rates there have outpaced the inflation rates in the rest of the country. It's had one of the highest rates of inflation. And so people are really feeling economically and financially pressured by rising costs, and it's on a lot of people's minds. So it's not as if the congressional seat there is particularly competitive, but I still felt like it is this rare kind of microcosm where you can get a sense of how inflation is going to affect people because it is so politically mixed.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And you had some really illuminating conversations with a lot of voters. And we're going to spend quite a bit of time with those voters today. So let's talk about Christina Willette.

KHALID: Yeah. So I met Christina Willette at her apartment complex in St. Petersburg. You know, she says that the rent has gone up by more than $600 over the last couple of years. And that's putting a lot of financial pressure on her because she's a mom of four who makes $15 an hour as a certified nursing assistant.

CHRISTINA WILLETTE: I'm working in the nursing field. I don't understand why we're making just as much as somebody at McDonald's and Wawa's and them type of places. We went to school for what we do. So I don't understand why we're making the same as them. You can't survive off minimum wage. You can't. There's no way.

KHALID: So for you, just so I understand, it sounds like home price - like rent's gone up, food's gone up, gas prices have gone up. What would you say has been the biggest crunch?

WILLETTE: Rent - rent prices are really - they're too high. And if you can't - it's like you can't do anything fun with the kids or anything with family because the only money you have is really for bills. That's it. I mean, it's ridiculous. You can't - really you can't enjoy life right now.

KHALID: When do you feel like that crunch started?

WILLETTE: Really since Biden's been in office. It's - that's who I picked, but it seems like that's when it started.

KHALID: So you said that's who you picked.

WILLETTE: That's who I picked. I don't blame him because I feel like Biden's just listening to other people in - close to him in position. I don't believe it's really Biden 'cause I don't think Biden really even knows what's going on. I'm just being honest.

KHALID: Would you vote for him again?

WILLETTE: No. No.

KHALID: So if it's Trump and Biden again, what would you do?

WILLETTE: I don't think I would vote, to be honest. I - because I wouldn't want to be - I wouldn't vote for either one of them 'cause I know that if I vote for Biden, it's going to be the same issues, but if I vote for Trump, who knows that he could fix it, you know what I mean?

KHALID: Did you vote for DeSantis?

WILLETTE: I did.

KHALID: OK.

WILLETTE: I did.

KHALID: Even though he's Republican?

WILLETTE: Yes.

KHALID: So you would vote Republican and Democrat?

WILLETTE: Yes. I'm - I feel like I vote by who I believe would be best in power. I don't go by Democrat or Republican. Yes, I should vote for a Democrat because I'm poor myself, but...

KHALID: But you like how DeSantis has been governing here?

WILLETTE: I love the way he's taken care of things. He didn't want to shut down nothing because he knows that shutting things down wasn't helping anything. There's so many...

KHALID: You mean during the pandemic?

WILLETTE: Yeah. There's so many businesses that crashed because of what's going on and things being closed. If he would have kept it open like he wanted to - but, you know, the government shut it down, so he had no choice.

KHALID: If DeSantis were to run for president, would you vote for him?

WILLETTE: I sure would.

KHALID: You would.

WILLETTE: I sure would. Yeah, I like his model (ph). I like his style. I like - pretty much I don't dislike anything that he's doing.

KHALID: And you like that he kept the schools open, the businesses open during the pandemic?

WILLETTE: Yeah, because my kid's been to school since Day 1 in the pandemic, soon as they opened schools. My kids never had COVID.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY BABBLING)

KHALID: So you heard one of her kids at the end there. But, you know, her point was that her kids never got COVID, she said, and that's despite the schools opening up in Florida earlier than in some other parts of the country. And for her, I mean, she could not work if she had her kids at home. It would just be really financially difficult for her.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, and she seems like a really unique voter 'cause she told you she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016...

KHALID: She did, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Then Joe Biden in 2020 and that she would not only consider voting for Ron DeSantis in 2024, but she sounded pretty enthusiastic about him. That is a heck of a partisan swing, especially considering how much Americans these days have very firm partisan identities. What would you say you learned from talking to her?

KHALID: So, you know, Danielle, I feel like when I go out to interview people, they're not always as surprising as you would think when you talk to them about the economy because it's...

KURTZLEBEN: Right, yeah.

KHALID: Folks are hyper partisan, right? And they view everything, including the economy, through that lens. But what I found really interesting when I was speaking with Christina is that she does not blame Biden for the current environment. You know, we didn't get into this here in this bit of tape, but she told me that she really despised Donald Trump's behavior. She thought he was sexist and divisive. But she is able to differentiate Trump from her Republican governor, Ron DeSantis. And, you know, she says she votes the person rather than the party.

And I will say, over my years of going out to interview voters, people who are genuinely, I would say, persuadable, possibly persuadable, are really, really rare. But, you know, activists don't focus really on voters like Christina in midterm elections because they're not trying to persuade voters. They're just trying to energize their base.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. All right. We're going to talk much more about voters. But first, we're going to take a quick break.

And we're back. Asma, let's turn back to your reporting and meet another family you talked to. This is Maranda Douglas and her mother, Deirdre.

KHALID: Yeah. And, you know, Danielle, earlier I mentioned this focus in midterm elections on energizing the base. Well, both Maranda and Deirdre do vote for Democrats. They live in Clearwater, Fla., and they're native to Florida, which I also think is worth pointing out because this area of the state has really seen an influx of newcomers moving into the county. And that has changed what the economy's like. It's certainly changed the housing market. And Maranda told me that this week, she's moving back into her mom's house with her 4-year-old daughter and her boyfriend. They decided that that's what made financial sense to save money. You'll hear from Deirdre first.

DEIRDRE DOUGLAS: I think everybody in this neighborhood, there's more than one family living in the houses to make ends meet.

MARANDA DOUGLAS: Like, it's a little disheartening 'cause, you know, we were really trying to establish our independence and grow our family, but...

KHALID: You said next week you're going to move in with your mom. Why did you decide to do that?

M DOUGLAS: We just couldn't afford - one, this increase to rent. If we were to go somewhere else, it would be first and last month in security. And we didn't have, you know, $6,000 saved up almost. Fortunately, unfortunately, my boyfriend's stepdad passed away, so he got some money from that. And we're looking at house buying, but the market still for that is a little bit out of range right now.

D DOUGLAS: Out of reach.

M DOUGLAS: Yeah.

D DOUGLAS: Out of reach.

M DOUGLAS: I did the first-time homebuyers class just to, like, get my feet wet and get more knowledgeable about it. But one of the comments the lady said was that this voucher is good for a down payment on a home up to 300,000. So that kind of, like, lowers the pool of houses that we can really select from in this area, which is...

KHALID: Because most of the homes are now over 300,000?

M DOUGLAS: Yeah.

KHALID: Would you guys move to another area? If you move further inland, are prices cheaper?

M DOUGLAS: I mean, we're considering all of our options right now, but our network is here. My mom is here. She goes to school right around the corner. We got friends, cousins. So it would be to our disadvantage to kind of move out of our network.

When COVID hit, you know, opposite of what we assumed, our rent went up. It was maybe, like, 100 bucks, but it still went up. And then, as I was explaining, too, we tried to do the rental assistance. But, you know, the other side of the coin was your landlord needed to say, yes, they owe this amount of money; send the money here. But our landlords are robots. Like, we never talk to any human people about our lease.

KHALID: All right. So now you're on the job hunt. You've been looking. Do you get feedback? I mean, people say - or I hear, at least, 'cause I'm in D.C. - I cover the White House a lot - Joe Biden will say, like, record job creation, there's 500-some thousand jobs that were created this past month. Do you feel that? I'm curious, like, how that translates to you.

M DOUGLAS: No, I don't. I mean, I don't know really where those jobs would come from. I'm not really seeing it, you know? Unless I bite the bullet and, you know, swallow my pride and go, like, to Walmart or something, then...

KHALID: How do you think that President Biden's been doing on the economy in particular?

M DOUGLAS: Terrible (laughter). I mean, it's just - it just seems like hit after hit for me. You know, there was the talk about student loan resolution. And, you know, I do feel responsible for my degree and for the debt that was accumulated behind that 'cause I was anticipating on getting a job that could pay for it. But, you know, if you're not going to cancel the debt, and there aren't any good jobs out for me to really work...

KURTZLEBEN: You know, hearing all of that, Scott, we should get to something really important, which is that, yes, we hear a lot of voters wondering, what's Biden doing about the economy, about inflation in particular? But as I understand it, there's not a lot he can personally do to, for example, bring inflation down, right?

HORSLEY: No, that's right. Responsibility for fighting inflation really lies with the Federal Reserve. Now, we do have the White House going out to market what they call the Inflation Reduction Act, but that labeling is really misleading. This big new bill that the Democrats passed on a party-line vote - it's really a clean energy, climate change, health care bill, and it's just false advertising to suggest it's going to have a meaningful effect on inflation in the short run. Now, maybe Democrats had to call it that to get the backing of Senator Joe Manchin, but, look, the provisions in this bill aren't really designed to address inflation, and that's OK. You know, they're designed to tackle other serious problems.

KHALID: You know, Scott, to that point, I mean, Democrats are certainly eager to run on this legislation ahead of November. And I hear what you're saying on the branding, but it's still notable to me that, you know, the White House is hitting the road this month to promote it, and it does seem like Democrats are optimistic that they will somehow be able to translate this legislative win into a political win. I will say, in talking to voters, it's not as if the Inflation Reduction Act was something that I heard on the tips of many people's tongues at all.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. To sort of wrap this all together, we're going to hear from one more voter that Asma talked to. This is a woman named Jill Mallen. What can you tell us about her?

KHALID: Jill is in her 60s. She told me she had bone cancer. She's on disability now. And I met her at a food bank, where she was picking up meals for the week because she said that she's been finding that prices are going up so severely, even at grocery chains that are known for being more affordable, like Aldi, where, you know, she would traditionally shop. And so she now comes to the food bank to get most of her food.

JILL MALLEN: It's just my budget - when I had no money left to - hardly to go shopping on.

KHALID: Everything has been going up.

MALLEN: Everything - everything has gone up, yes.

KHALID: And do you own your home, or are you renting?

MALLEN: I do, thank God. I own my home, but I can't afford to have homeowners insurance on it because the homeowners insurance rates have gone through the roof. And I...

KHALID: So you're not insuring the house right now?

MALLEN: I'm not insured. So, you know, if something happens, I'm going to be up s*** creek because I'm in a house that's paid for - and thank God - but I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to pay my taxes this year. And I'm going to - and I'm trying to figure out - you know, I'm just trying to figure out how the heck I'm going to live.

KHALID: You know, Jill told me that she is a registered Democrat, but she finds herself rather politically confused at the moment because she does not like the, quote, "untruths" that took over with the Republican Party under Donald Trump, but she actually did feel like the economy was stronger under him. And, you know, I don't know. I guess this all leads me to wonder how much of a factor the economy really is because I do think there is bipartisan angst and frustration about the current economic situation, but it doesn't seem like people have a clear-cut vision of what they're going to do with that politically.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And this is a thing I really wanted to ask you about here - is sort of the causality of how people vote versus how they feel about the economy because it seems like there's a takeaway that, yes, there are people who are frustrated with Democrats about the economy, about inflation, but it's not clear that this single factor of the economy is going to be the primary motivation impacting how and if people vote. I mean, I can say that sometimes, out on the trail, it even seems like the rationalization works the other way - where, as a voter, you see the economy as bad or good, and then you decide whether you want to blame Biden or not based on your partisan lean. And I'm curious - is that what you came away thinking?

KHALID: You know, I will say I went to Florida expecting to hear that inflation was driving a good number of people's votes because, when you look at polls, you consistently see - for months, frankly - that the economy and inflation have been two of the biggest concerns that voters have. But, you know, to your point exactly, Danielle, you know, what I found is that, in some cases, there are certainly other things motivating voters, or folks are kind of rationalizing their political decisions around the economy.

You know, one thing I heard from people is that there are other issues that they feel will actually energize their respective bases more. One thing I heard from a Republican voter was that the FBI search of Donald Trump's home at Mar-a-Lago could potentially really energize Republican voters, that Republicans are really angry at that. And, you know, Democrats, on the flip side, told me that, well, hey, their base is also angry. They're angry about reproductive rights being stripped away. And so, you know, anger - you know this - can be a great motivating force in elections, and maybe it's a factor of whose base is actually angrier.

HORSLEY: And we've talked in the past about how people's attitudes on inflation are really influenced by the price of gasoline. As gas prices have come down a little bit - they're still high compared to a year ago, but they've come down substantially in the last six weeks or so - maybe that does leave a little more room for some of these other issues to bubble up to the surface.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. We're going to take one more quick break. And when we get back, it is time for Can't Let It Go.

And we are back. And it's time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just can't stop talking about, politics or otherwise. Asma Khalid, you are starting. What can't you let go of?

KHALID: All right. So what I cannot let go of is the Netflix show that I literally binged probably in two nights, "Never Have I Ever." Have you all been watching it?

KURTZLEBEN: No.

KHALID: No? OK. Well, then you must. Guys, look; I'm just saying, I think y'all should watch it. So let me just explain. It is produced by Mindy Kaling. I'm sure you all know Mindy Kaling.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

KHALID: But the reason that I love, love this show is it is the story of a mother and a daughter, Indian-Americans living their life in California. And growing up, I felt like the only real mother-daughter stories I saw on TV was "Gilmore Girls," which I loved. Everybody knows "Gilmore Girls." But as much as I love that show set in, like, bougie New England, it was also incredibly unrelatable. Like, that was not my life at all. And when I see "Never Have I Ever," there's, like, these nuances in who the story is, but also makes it so relatable. On top of it, John McEnroe is the narrator, and, I mean, John McEnroe is amazing. And who knew he had a second life as a narrator on TV shows? But he does.

Anyhow, I just wanted to give a shoutout to the show because I feel like there has never been a show that I have seen, I will say, on mainstream TV that shows you nuance within the Indian characters, right? Like, the entire show is made up of Indian-American actors and actresses. Not everybody. It's set in, like, this high school in California. But the point is they are the stars of the show, and they are, like, individual, distinct people. And I have yet to see a show like that on TV. So shoutout to Mindy Kaling.

KURTZLEBEN: I think the third season just came out. Did you binge all three seasons...

KHALID: Yes, I did.

KURTZLEBEN: ...In two days?

KHALID: No, no, no. I had watched the two seasons prior.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh.

KHALID: I know, you're like, when did you go to Florida and write the story?

KURTZLEBEN: Look, I give you props. You're a busy woman. You get things done. Good for you.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: Scott, do you watch the show secretly?

HORSLEY: I don't watch it because it's not on DVD. But I've heard Pop Culture Happy Hour talking about it, which is how I keep up with all the stuff I'm not able to see.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: I'm waiting for it to come out on LaserDisc.

HORSLEY: But you should just flag that the new season just dropped.

KHALID: Yes, yes. The third season just dropped. So if y'all haven't seen this, you can now watch all three seasons this weekend, actually. That should be your weekend entertainment watching.

All right. Moving on. Danielle, what can you not let go of?

KURTZLEBEN: I cannot let go of - you know, I am not a sporty person, I will readily admit, but this is a clip from a baseball game that was bouncing around Twitter, which is, of course, where I ran across it. So this is a sportscaster named Dave Flemming explaining during the game and for - at great length to his fellow sportscaster Jon Miller about Wordle, just explaining to him what it is. And this just goes on for apparently half of an inning. So here is...

KHALID: I have not seen this or heard this. Yeah, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, here is a clip of this going on. It is beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVE FLEMMING: So you could just pick one to start.

JON MILLER: And you go across, or you go up and down, or...

FLEMMING: You go across.

MILLER: And you have to hit enter? OK.

FLEMMING: Yeah. Then you hit enter, and it will tell you, oh, you got two letters correct, but not in the exact spot where they appear in the word. If the letter comes up green...

(SOUNDBITE OF BALL HITTING GLOVE)

FLEMMING: Here's Tommy - I should actually call the game. Here's a fastball inside to La Stella - ball one.

MILLER: I've been getting text messages now from friends saying, well, don't mention what the word is. I haven't done mine yet for today.

FLEMMING: Yeah, that's true. You don't want to be a spoiler.

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: I should say this is from station KNBR, but I...

KHALID: Also, this was recently? 'Cause I feel like Wordle's been around for a bit. OK, now I'm going to judge who's down with the pop culture.

KURTZLEBEN: No, but - there are two minutes cut together of this going on during the game. Like, meanwhile, the pitcher is throwing, the batter is swinging and...

KHALID: And the game is going on.

KURTZLEBEN: ...These two guys don't care. Oh, it's wonderful. So if - do this more during baseball games, and I'll be a loyal watcher and listener.

KHALID: You know, I recently returned to Wordle, by the way, which - as I sidetrack here - I realized how much I had missed it.

KURTZLEBEN: It holds up - still good.

KHALID: It is still good.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Scott Horsley, what can't you let go of?

HORSLEY: Well, this was a week when a lot of big retail companies were reporting their earnings. And overall, consumer spending has actually held up pretty well as gas prices have fallen. That's left people with more money to spend on other things, like the all-important Halloween decorations.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

HORSLEY: And my favorite sign of that came this week from Home Depot, which reported its own quarterly earnings. And we learned that Home Depot has already sold out of those very popular 12-foot skeletons...

KHALID: No.

HORSLEY: ...That have started to rival pumpkin spice latte as the symbol that fall has arrived. And my favorite line in the news coverage this week comes from the Home Depot chief financial officer, Richard McPhail, who told The New York Times, quote, "there aren't many things more discretionary than a giant skeleton."

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

KHALID: Hey.

HORSLEY: His point being...

KHALID: Truer words have not been spoken.

HORSLEY: ...If people are still buying - exactly. His point was as long as people are buying those, the economy is not as bare-bones as some other indicators might suggest. And the one person who might disagree with Richard McPhail about the discretionary nature of the 12-foot skeleton is our podcast buddy Kelsey Snell. Kelsey had her heart set on one of those bony giants, and she was crushed when she heard that they were sold out. So if anyone has a secondhand skeleton...

KHALID: (Laughter) They can donate to Kelsey.

HORSLEY: ...They are willing to part with, reach out and please let Kelsey know.

KURTZLEBEN: Sounds like Joe Biden has his economic high point to use in any ad. We're going to call this a wrap for today.

KHALID: Well, maybe it's just a supply chain issue, and we'll have more in September.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. I hope so. I want one. All right. That is a wrap for today. Scott Horsley, it is always a pleasure.

HORSLEY: Great to be with y'all.

KURTZLEBEN: Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editors are Eric McDaniel and Krishnadev Calamur. Our producers are Casey Morell, Elena Moore and Lexie Schapitl. Thanks to Brandon Carter and Maya Rosenberg.

I am Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

KHALID: And I am Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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