Builders tend to be a fairly reliably Republican crowd, but the factors influencing the 2008 election seem to have pushed them into new political territory, based on interviews BUILDER did this week with a dozen builders around the country.
"Typically I vote for an independent candidate (not a Democrat or a Republican) to make a statement for third parties. This year I will probably break my tradition and back Obama," said Fred Kimball, a self-described social libertarian with Kimball & Landis in Port Townsend, Wash. "I want an assurance of real change in the government, and I don't believe a Republican can do it."
John Floyd, owner of Ole South Properties in Murfreesboro, Tenn., has come to a similar conclusion despite having voted for President George W. Bush twice. While Floyd said he doesn't agree with all of Obama's promises, "from a purely selfish standpoint, I've switched my support to Obama because, at this point in time, we have to have something that at least appears to be totally new in everything. We have to get consumer confidence up because if we can't, the building industry will be cooked. It's pretty cooked already."
Not surprisingly, builders cited the state of the housing market and global economy as a significant factor in their voting plans for president. But many also expressed frustration at the lack of real solutions to the housing crisis being offered by either Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama.
"Neither candidate has addressed the problem of reviving the housing market," Bill McGuiness, principal with Sun Homes in Pawling, N.Y., told BUILDER. "Relief for current homeowners is of course important, but I've heard or read nothing about how to get the market back on track. Ironically, as prices fall, homes are becoming less affordable (or maybe homeownership is much less attainable), to the point where well-qualified people are being asked to pay over 8% for a jumbo mortgage."
The candidates' silence on such issues has left Barry Gross an undecided voter just 10 days before the election. "Since I believe at the present time that big government is a short-term answer to the housing industry's woes, I will support a candidate who invests significant resources and efforts to improving our industry. As of today, neither candidate has provided me with a clear-cut reason to vote for him," said Gross, president of Developers Research in Irvine, Calif.
A growing level of worry about the housing market emerged in interviews with builders large and small for this story. "The reality is that we have a major housing crisis, and we are headed for a major recession and [are] at risk for something worse," said Ara Hovnanian, CEO of Hovnanian Enterprises, a public builder based in Red Bank, N.J. "I honestly fear that people will be on soup lines, because this economy is scary right now. I don't believe in government intervention except in times of crisis, which is where we are now."
Small builders couldn't agree more. "I'm telling you, it's the worst situation I've ever seen," said Bill Clark of Bill Clark Homes in Greenville, N.C. A builder for 31 years, he plans to vote for McCain, who he considers more qualified than Obama. He also doesn't care for Obama's tax plans. "The guy is lying to the people of this country and is winning on flair, not substance," Clark said.
His dislike of Obama's tax plans was echoed by David Konkol, a Florida builder who plans to vote for McCain. Still, he said, "I think Obama is going to win, and I can candidly say that I am not overly motivated to work harder so that my income that is in excess of $250,000 will be redistributed to those who are in favor of socialism. I am more inclined to lay people off, downsize my company, and wait out the four years."
Others think the tax issue has gotten too much time from the candidates and media alike. "They are both arguing about taxes when we'll all be lucky to be paying taxes next year. We need to hear how they plan to lead us out of the depression," said Caroline Hoyt, co-founder of McStain Enterprises in Colorado. She plans to vote for Obama. "I think he is smarter than John McCain. I don't like McCain's pandering to the Christian conservatives that brought us George Bush."
Several builders said that extremism was not what they wanted in their next president. "I will support whichever candidate is less likely to be swayed by the extreme factions in their party. I'm equally leery of ultra-left Democrats and ultra-right Republicans, and I don't want anyone in the White House who will put social issues ahead of stewardship of the economy," said McGuiness, who said he plans to vote for Obama. "McCain seems to be courting the extreme elements in his own party more so than Obama is in his; McCain, once in, may very well return to being as independent-minded as he once was, but we have to accept the possibility of [Sarah] Palin ending up president, and I think she is part of the extreme element I don't want in charge."
The pick of Palin as vice president also dismayed John Gavenas. An independent voter, he serves as vice president of land planning and development at Avatar Properties in Florida, and like the other builders interviewed for this story, stresses that his political opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his company or colleagues. "The possibility of Palin leading this country is an unthinkable option, and McCain's choice of her as his vice president seriously undermines his credibility. Less than two years' experience as governor of the least populous state in the union; 700,000 people; and zero foreign policy experience (got her passport last year?); not to mention a lackluster education and a far-right religious agenda," Gavenas told BUILDER via e-mail. "How could this be a serious choice for any other than the rock-bottom base of the Republican Party?"
Regardless of who wins Nov. 4, though, builders hope that the election will give the economy, the housing market and the country a chance to make a new start. The election "might help clear the air and bring a fresh perspective to the situation," said Richard Dugas, CEO of public builder Pulte, in an e-mail to BUILDER. "Our country--for that matter, the world--has gone through considerable financial and credit turmoil in the past few weeks. Maybe once the election is over and the dust settles around the credit crisis, legislators will focus their efforts clearly on getting housing out of the ditch and back on the road."
And once these newly elected leaders are in office, "[t]hey need to address the housing crisis immediately," Dugas said. "If I had a dollar for every time I heard a pundit or politician say in the last month, 'this all starts with housing,' I could use that money to make a real dent in fixing the housing crisis."
BUILDER senior editors John Caulfield, Jenny Sullivan, Ethan Butterfield, and Pat Curry contributed reporting to this story.