Voters share their view of the U.S. economy — and their politics The economy is a top voting issue for many Americans. Four "American Indicators," people reflecting different sectors of the economy in different parts of the country, talk about their politics.

Four 'American Indicators' share their view of the U.S. economy — and their politics

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The first time I spoke with Bhavesh Patel, he owned seven hotels in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois. He'd been helping his father with the family business since he was just a kid. And these days, he has adult kids of his own.

BHAVESH PATEL: I used to be a lifeguard at our property.

SHAPIRO: These are franchises, brands like Comfort Inn and Hampton Inn.

PATEL: We did maintenance. I did lawn care. You name it. I did the front desk, all aspects of the industry.

SHAPIRO: We had that first conversation in early 2021, just as people were getting vaccinated and the country was beginning to emerge from the pandemic recession. Patel is one of our American indicators, four people in different parts of the country reflecting different parts of the economy. Year after year, we've seen through their eyes how the changing economy ripples out in places like St. Louis, where Lee Camp is a housing attorney. Here's what Camp told me in the summer of 2021.

LEE CAMP: Phones are being flooded with people primarily asking for housing assistance.

SHAPIRO: At that time, a pandemic moratorium on evictions was ending, and Camp told me his clients were afraid of becoming homeless.

CAMP: We are watching a tidal wave move forward towards us and across the state of this reopening and this eviction resumption beginning.

SHAPIRO: Or when the global supply chain got snarled later in 2021, another American indicator, Lisa Winton, told us what it meant for Winton Machine Company, her small manufacturing business outside of Atlanta.

LISA WINTON: One part, just one motor, was supposed to be on our floor about two weeks ago. And that was six weeks after ordering it, and now we were told we had another eight weeks until this motor would be delivered.

SHAPIRO: Or when food prices spiked just last year, Brooke Neubauer told us what that looked like in Las Vegas, where she runs The Just One Project, the largest distributor of groceries to hungry people in Nevada.

BROOKE NEUBAUER: You know, purchasing millions of pounds a year of food, our grocery bill has gone up.

SHAPIRO: Through all of those conversations about the economy spanning years, politics was never the focus. I didn't know whether our American indicators were Democrats or Republicans, Biden or Trump voters. Well, now it's election season, and Americans often rank the economy as their No. 1 voting issue. So all this week, we'll be looking at how the economy could affect the 2024 election. It's part of an NPR series exploring the issues that matter to you. We're calling it We the Voters. To kick off the week, I got in touch with all four of our American indicators again, and this time, we did talk politics. Brooke Neubauer in Nevada reminded me presidential campaigns actually came up in our last conversation.

NEUBAUER: You do remember last time I did say that I'd like to be president so I could fix things, right?

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And I'm sure that if you were, you would.

NEUBAUER: You'd be my VP.

SHAPIRO: Oh, I would very graciously decline that offer, but thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: I was genuinely curious to know where they all stood politically. But before we get to the big reveal, I asked each of our American indicators what the economy looks like now from where they sit. Remember I told you Bhavesh Patel owned seven properties a few years ago? Hotels were his family business. Well, now he's downsized.

PATEL: We sold off three properties, so we're down to four now.

SHAPIRO: His two sons, both in their 20s, said they didn't want to go into hotels. They're pursuing careers in medicine instead, and Patel says he can't blame them.

PATEL: It's a tough market to be in right now. After graduating college, it was a lucrative business, right? You didn't have all these rules, regulations, brand specs. But now things have gotten tighter.

SHAPIRO: He says right now high-end hotels are doing much better than the midscale places he runs. The wealth gap in the U.S. has continued to grow in the last few years. Between those challenges and growing regulations, he sometimes wonders whether he should have chosen a different career.

PATEL: I don't want government telling me how to run my business. I don't want all these different rules and stipulations out there and whatnot.

SHAPIRO: Do you typically think of yourself as a Democratic, Republican, independent? How do you characterize your own voting patterns?

PATEL: I think I'm a moderate Republican.

SHAPIRO: If you are comfortable with my asking, did you vote for Trump? Did you vote for Biden in these last two presidential elections?

PATEL: I did vote for President Trump, honestly. And the last one - I wanted to see a change a little bit. And so I voted for Biden at that time.

SHAPIRO: And have you decided how you're going to vote this time?

PATEL: No, not yet.

SHAPIRO: Wow. You're one of those rare undecided voters.

PATEL: I am.

SHAPIRO: What's going to make up your mind for you?

PATEL: We will see where the campaign goes and what's to come in the next couple months.

SHAPIRO: From New Jersey, let's head back west to Nevada, where Brooke Neubauer asked me to be a running mate. Realistically, these days, she is too busy feeding 20,000 people a month to actually run for office.

NEUBAUER: During the peak of the pandemic, The Just One project was serving 58,000 people on average every single month.

SHAPIRO: Wow - almost three times as many as right now.

NEUBAUER: I know - absolutely crazy.

SHAPIRO: She says when she looks at the economy today, there are plenty of jobs. As she sees it, the problem is they don't pay enough.

NEUBAUER: It's a cost of living situation. Now people are working - you know, if they're anywhere near minimum wage, that is $11.25 for Nevada. That's - what? - $22,000 annually. So, you know, it's really hard to get by with that.

SHAPIRO: So even though unemployment is very low, near record lows, salaries just aren't high enough, wages aren't high enough for people to cover their basic needs.

NEUBAUER: Absolutely. So for me and what I'm hearing from my clients is that the cost of living - the wages have not caught up with the cost of living.

SHAPIRO: When it comes to politics, she says she wants to vote for a president who will invest in social services. And also, she thinks a lot about role models.

NEUBAUER: I'm not a fan of a president who is unkind. And, you know, look. I spend my life's work trying to make the world a better place. I spend my time as a mom teaching my kids to be kind and inspiring them to be loving. I couldn't bear to vote for a presidential candidate that was not aligned with my values.

SHAPIRO: Neubauer has voted for Democrats and Republicans over the years, but when it comes to this election, she's firmly decided.

NEUBAUER: I just can't fathom that Donald Trump is the best thing that we have come up with to run for president.

SHAPIRO: In Missouri, housing attorney Lee Camp is still thinking about his clients who face eviction. But that's not the only economic pressure on his mind.

CAMP: Personally, I'll tell you one thing that's been substantially changing - is the resumption of student loan payments. I love my career. I love that I get to serve people and work alongside so many inspiring and amazing individuals. But the loan payments are back, and that has certainly changed our financial picture in our household.

SHAPIRO: And has any of the forgiveness applied to you?

CAMP: It has not as of this time.

SHAPIRO: Do you blame the Biden administration for not being able to get that done?

CAMP: I don't know that I would blame any administration particularly. I would encourage them to go further, particularly if they get the option to do so and a second term. I ultimately also made the decision to take on those loans and to go to law school and do the work that I do.

SHAPIRO: He's also worried about reproductive rights.

CAMP: That is something that we're concerned about in my household as we try to start a family. And I have a lot of empathy and sympathy for individuals that have felt the restrictions of being able to make their own choice and bodily autonomy decisions.

SHAPIRO: So, like many voters, when Camp casts his ballot, he's thinking about more than just the economy, whereas Lisa Winton in Georgia sees herself as a pocketbook voter many times over.

WINTON: You know, a lot of people vote with their wallets. However, when you own a company, you're not voting with your wallet. You're voting with your employees' wallets, your vendors' wallets, like, all of these other people that depend on you.

SHAPIRO: Winton Machine Company outside of Atlanta has 40 employees.

WINTON: Since I own a company and I have those 40 people to think about and I have their families to think about and then I have my vendor to think about.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

WINTON: So it's hard not to think about those fiscal policies. And also having two children, I'm thinking about the future. I'm thinking about their future.

SHAPIRO: So what does the economy look like to her right now?

WINTON: We were able to have the best year we've ever had last year.

SHAPIRO: Wow - like, by a hair or by a long shot?

WINTON: By 20%.

SHAPIRO: Twenty percent. That's a banner year.

WINTON: A banner year.

SHAPIRO: I know Winton is a small manufacturing company. Could you ever imagine a world where you open a second factory?

WINTON: Yes. We were actually looking at a new factory. We were looking to increase our size, to double our size. And then having a stellar year, we thought this was the year. Our lease expired in December. And with the inflation, our lease went up over a hundred percent.

SHAPIRO: Whoa.

WINTON: So we're paying more than double for the same amount of space.

SHAPIRO: When I asked her how this translates to politics, she said she's in a frustrating spot.

WINTON: I'm fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and I can say that on the record.

SHAPIRO: She says tax policies that the Trump administration put in place are what allowed her company to have a banner year. At the same time, she's concerned about the Republican Party's shift to the right on some social issues.

WINTON: I am not a party voter. I vote a candidate. And I vote candidate based on fiscal policies, and I also vote based on some social policies as well.

SHAPIRO: Which candidate do you think is going to get your vote?

WINTON: I am so torn. I don't know yet.

SHAPIRO: You're undecided.

WINTON: I'm undecided.

SHAPIRO: And Georgia is an important state in this election. I don't need to tell you.

WINTON: Yes, yes. We're a purple state. I just - I would like to see a moderate candidate in the White House.

SHAPIRO: And you don't feel like either of the options in front of you fits that description.

WINTON: No.

SHAPIRO: Lisa Winton says like so many other voters, she feels there has to be a better solution.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "PULSES")

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