CELEBRATION, Fla. — The first night of the debates was just an hour from starting, and the anxiety among Democrats was starting to build.

In Celebration — the Norman Rockwell-esque town that the Disney corporation conjured out of a Florida swamp in the 1990s — Dave Finnigan, 77, was wrapping up a meeting at a Democratic club and heading to a watch party in a golf course clubhouse.

“Our membership is at an all-time high, but enthusiasm is low,” Finnigan said. The sense of dread had been there ever since Democrats in Florida lost the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races to Republicans in 2018. “It was just devastating for us,” he said.

Teresa Castillo, 37, was on her way to Finnigan’s watch party. She had clawed her way onto a lower rung of the middle class — a small apartment she shared with her 14-year-old daughter a couple of miles from Celebration in Kissimmee. Her mother had been a housekeeper in nearby motels that have recently become shelters of last resort for thousands of working families. Her father drove a bus for Disney.

She wanted to know how the candidates were going to fix the huge income disparities in her community or, at a minimum, get working families out of transient motels and into livable homes. “What are you going to do to fix our homeless problem and those families stuck in those hotels?” is a question she has heard again and again in her community.

Just down the highway, at an aging motel where rooms cost $283 per week, Aja Mallow, 28, cooked chili in a crockpot for her boyfriend, her 9-year-old son and her mother. Her hot plate was at the pawnshop. For families like Mallow’s, who make this resort economy run, the debates were a distant echo. She had more pressing worries — endlessly calculating in her head the amount of cash her family had on hand and the expenses the next day would bring.

“No matter who you pick, you can’t trust anybody,” Mallow said of politicians. “It’s people like us who need help.”

The Democrats chose Florida as the site of their first presidential debate because the state was key to President Trump’s electoral college win in 2016. Central Florida, in particular, is crucial because its population is fast-growing and politically unpredictable.

Gun control, climate change and the immigration crisis are all important here. But the key issue, the issue that could decide Florida and the election, is an economy that has benefited some but, to many, seems unfair, uneven and even cruel.

For two nights, candidates stood on the debate stage 200 miles away in Miami and talked to an audience of donors and party activists about their plans to fix an economy that they described as “rigged,” “not working for working people” and in need of major “structural change.” Finnigan, Castillo and Mallow listened avidly in some moments and intermittently in others when the trials of their daily lives intervened. They shared a sense that something in the economy was badly broken, as well as a belief that the candidate who had a convincing plan to fix it had the best chance of winning the presidency.

Finnigan moved to Celebration in 1998 after a stint in the Army, a decade doing family planning work in Asia and a career traveling the country putting on juggling shows for schools. Back then, Disney’s plan was to build a mixed-income community along the model of a classic New England town. These days, though, the cheaper rowhouses were going for $500,000 a pop. Finnigan and his wife raised three children in Celebration, and, as he walked through the town, he was often reminded of what he loved about the place.

There were big shade trees, quiet canals, creeks and parks. In his front garden, Finnigan raised monarch butterflies. “The females’ purpose in life is to lay 400 eggs and then she dies,” he said. “So amazing!”

On the first night of the debates, he had been impressed with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plans to help the working poor and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s passion for redressing climate change.

“All causes are lost causes if we don’t fix the climate,” he said as Inslee spoke.

On the second night of debates, he drove to a watch party the county Democrats were holding at a restaurant about 10 miles from Celebration. Finnigan knew that about 80 percent of the Democrats in Celebration showed up to vote on Election Day. The rest of the county was another story.

He passed the towering oaks, draped in Spanish moss, on Celebration Avenue and turned onto traffic-choked Route 192. Machine Gun America, a shooting range where tourists can fire assault weapons, loomed on his left. There were pawnshops, a gift shop in the shape of a giant orange and old men hawking secondhand Disney resort tickets.

He looked out the windows at the run-down hotels filled with families. Then he turned onto a side street.

“This is the next level up,” Finnigan said, pointing to an apartment community that sprawled for more than a half-mile and where voter turnout was less than 10 percent.

“If all these people voted, we’d be a blue state,” he said.

Finnigan and his fellow Democrats were trying to make plans to mobilize them, but it was slow going. Most of Finnigan’s volunteers were older and didn’t have the energy to canvass lower-
income neighborhoods. “We’re dealing with a lot of sedentary folks,” he said of his volunteers. Many were reluctant to venture out into unfamiliar territory.

As the candidates took the stage, Finnigan was looking for someone who might improve the lives of these low-income workers and, hopefully, inspire them to the polls.

He liked Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s fight and her flashes of anger. And he admired Sen. Bernie Sanders’s proposals to redistribute wealth, which he saw as the only way to fix the lives of the working poor.

The candidates started in on their closing arguments.

“Hold it! Hold it!” Finnigan said, asking for quiet in the crowded restaurant. He moved closer to the television and leaned on a bar stool. “How come we have the highest rate of childhood poverty?” Sanders (I-Vt.) asked. “How come three people own more wealth than the bottom half of America?”

Finnigan listened intently.

“I want to watch the closing arguments again tomorrow morning,” he said, reasoning that they were the best way to judge the candidates. He thought back to the families struggling to survive along Route 192.

“We’ve got to give them something to vote for,” he said.

The moment from the debates that most moved Castillo came on the first night, when Warren (Mass.) delivered her closing remarks.

“Never in a million years did I think I would stand on a stage like this,” Warren began and then recalled her start at a $50 per semester community college. “That was a little slice of government that created some opportunity for a girl,” she continued. “And it opened my life.”

As she listened, Castillo began to cry. “She reminds me of myself,” she said. “I love that she went to community college, like I did. I love that she wanted to be a teacher.”

Castillo, who works in training and worker development for a cable company, ran last fall for the Osceola County School Board seat that includes Celebration. At first, she said, she was uneasy about even campaigning in Celebration, which seemed like a different world from hers.

She met Finnigan through the Osceola County Democratic Party, and he introduced her to his neighbors and helped her run canvassing operations out of his home. Former congresswoman Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who ran for president in 1988 and retired to Celebration, threw a party for her.

Castillo’s opponent, a Celebration resident, outraised her $30,000 to $5,000, but she eked out a victory.

Her county school district ranks last among the 67 counties in Florida in funding per pupil and is the second-fastest growing in the state. Puerto Ricans who fled Hurricane Maria began streaming into the area in late 2017. So, too, have families from around the country, lured by the abundant low-skill service jobs, warm weather and the proximity to Disney resorts. Today, Osceola County is 69 percent black or Hispanic.

Many of the new families wound up in the hotels along Route 192 in Castillo’s district. Just after sunrise during the school year, she would watch the school buses pull up to the motels to pick up children waiting in the parking lots. Most of the motels are zoned for an elementary school that’s a 40-minute drive away instead of the closer one in Celebration.

The second night of debates was getting started. Castillo hugged Finnigan and settled in with her friends.

“Look at him,” she said when the camera focused in on former vice president Joe Biden and his confident, high-watt smile. “He’s saying, ‘I got this.’ ”

She was intrigued by candidate Andrew Yang’s proposal to mitigate the effects of technology by giving $1,000 a month to all adults over 18. “I’ve seen people where I work replaced by voice recognition [software],” she said.

And she was drawn to Harris (Calif.). But when the night ended, she was still most passionate about Warren. “When she speaks, it hits me right here,” Castillo said, motioning to her stomach.

She drove down Route 192 past the old Econo Lodge where her mother used to work and where the rooms were going for $50 a night. Next door, the sign for the 192 Flea Market glowed.

On good nights, when her mother picked up more than $30 in tips, she would take Castillo out to dinner. Back then, the hotels were mostly filled with tourists. “If I worked in a hotel today, I know I wouldn’t be able to afford an apartment,” she said. “It scares me. I don’t see any upward mobility anymore.”

An hour after the first debate ended, Mallow and her mother, Shannon Berryhill, 51, made a midnight run to an ATM to withdraw Berryhill’s paycheck before a payday loan company could grab its share. They did so to delay repayment and, more importantly, avoid re-upping the loan until their next payday was closer.

They hadn’t watched the debate that night. Mallow’s son, Brian, watched a nature show instead. She had lost her job at McDonald’s, and money was even tighter than usual. She didn’t have the patience for politics.

Her mother’s paycheck would cover groceries after the food stamps were gone, rent, gas, medication and fees to the loan company — in addition to getting Brian’s tablet and Mallow’s laptop out of the pawnshop so she could apply for jobs. She and her mom discussed the clothes that they should wash when they had the cash for laundry.

If there was anything left, Mallow wanted to take her son to the zoo for his 10th birthday.

“I wish there were [charities] to help with birthdays, like they have for Christmas,” said Mallow.

“You can sell plasma like I used to do for you,” her mother suggested.

The payday loan company got to the money first, leaving about half of Berryhill’s paycheck from her $17-an-hour job for a cable company.

They had come to Florida a few years ago from Kentucky when Mallow’s parents lost their jobs and drained their 401(k)s. “We figured if we were going to be homeless, we might as well be somewhere warm,” Mallow said. “And close to Disney.”

At first it felt like a vacation — the three generations packed into a motel room with two queen-size beds. But the motel stays never ended, even when times were better.

Just a few months ago, Mallow and her mother were both working. Her dad drove them to work and stayed with his grandson. They were due a $5,400 tax refund that would allow them to pay off debts, get a car and get out of the hotel. Instead, their plans unraveled. The day before the money arrived, Mallow’s 48-year-old father died of a stroke. She missed work for the funeral, then broke her ankle, then missed more work and was fired two weeks ago.

They moved to a cheaper and seedier hotel along Route 192 — the same one in which they had stayed when they first landed in Florida.

On Thursday morning, the day of the second debate, Mallow dropped her mom at work and punctured a tire on the interstate headed back to the hotel.

The setback meant there would be no trip to the pawnshop that day and no time for laundry. As the second night of the presidential debate began, Mallow was cooking pot roast and watching the season finale of her favorite show, “In the Dark.”

“It makes me want to throw my shoe at the TV,” she said of the show’s frustrating cliffhanger.

“Don’t,” her mother deadpanned. “We don’t own it.”

Mallow’s mother flipped to the end of the debate. They both voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but never registered to vote in Florida, in part because they never had a permanent address. Before the debate, she had been intrigued by Warren’s populist economic message.

Mallow’s son came home from a friend’s room, greeted his two dogs and two cats, ate a bowl of crockpot pot roast, and played with his Legos on the floor. On television, Sanders and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) were talking about abortion.

“It is mind-boggling to me that we are debating this on this stage in 2019 among Democrats whether women should have access to reproductive rights,” Gillibrand said.

Mallow admired Gillibrand’s forcefulness. She’s had two abortions, including one when her son was 1. “I had to worry about the baby I already had,” she said.

The moderators moved on to climate change. Mallow checked to see whether the mini-refrigerator was leaking water — she had unplugged it to use the crockpot without overloading the electrical circuit.

The candidates turned to their closing arguments. Mallow and her mother discussed their plan for the next day and decided Berryhill would drive herself to work to save a few dollars on gas. Little from the debate resonated with them.

“I feel like everybody is so focused on just beating Trump and not on fixing the problems of America,” Mallow said. “I was looking for more out of them.”

Sometimes the possibility of a better life seemed so close, and then it slipped away. A year ago, Mallow’s son made the honor roll. Everyone was working, so she signed up for an annual family pass to Disney World.

For two magical months, they went to the parks whenever they could. Then they hit a rough patch and she couldn’t keep up with the payments. She owes Disney $1,400 and is banned from the park until she pays it off.

No politician, she said, really understood what it was like to live like this.