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Presidential election turns personal for many swing-state voters

Americans who have fallen below the middle class in recent years talk about the November election.

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Four years ago, Kevin Kisich was likely to be found in a lab, working on ways to fight diseases like measles, or on a plane traveling the world to attend conferences.

These days, Kisich, 51, is more likely to be found in his woodworking barn, building tables out of local cottonwood trees, or picking up his 10-year-old son from school and attending his regular football practices.

The lifestyle change isn’t bad, but it also isn’t by choice: After losing his $85,000-a-year job as an immunologist in 2008 because he couldn’t get funding, Kisich applied for hundreds of local jobs in his field. When nothing panned out, he said he saw few options besides starting his own business making home furnishings. He expects to earn maybe $24,000 this year.

“I wouldn’t call it making a profit,” he said of his current business, Stone and Cottonwood. “It’s surviving from crisis to crisis.”

John Makely / NBC News

Kevin Kisich was a research scientist for twenty years until his funding ran out in 2008. Now he builds furniture.

The economy is the biggest issue in next month's presidential election, and for many swing-state voters like Kisich it’s personal. The recession and weak recovery have pushed many prospective voters down the economic ladder, from the security of a middle-class life to a far more precarious financial existence. Median household income, adjusted for inflation, fell 8.1 percent nationwide from 2007 to 2011, to $50,054.

Kisich’s change in circumstances has affected how he looks at politics.

Down the Ladder:An occasional series on Americans struggling to hold onto a middle-class life. Connect with us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter or send us email.

Four years ago, he voted for President Barack Obama. This year, he’s leaning toward libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. But he will be paying close attention to what the two major party candidates have to say Wednesday, when the first presidential debate takes place in Denver, not far from Kisich's Colorado home.

Although Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have made a lot of promises, Kisich doesn’t think either candidate has done enough to help people like him.

“Neither candidate really has much to say to us. They’re talking about the middle class,” Kisich said. “I’m so far below middle class at this point. They’re not talking to me anymore."

While Obama generally has been leading in all nine battleground states including Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Ohio, the election is still considered close and Romney could close the gap if he puts in a strong showing in in Wednesday’s debate.

John Makely / NBC News

Christopher Anno of Denver recently left the military and took the first job he could find. He feels lucky to have the job but is still struggling financially.

He'll have a supporter in Chris Anno.

Anno, 24, feels incredibly lucky to finally count himself among Colorado’s employed, but after nearly a year of looking his wife is still jobless.

The couple moved to Denver last October from Guam, where he had served in the U.S. Navy. Anno said he left the Navy knowing the economy would be tough, but he wasn’t expecting things to be quite so bad.

After several months without work, a stint with a temporary agency eventually led to a full-time job in the accounting department of a small company in Golden, outside Denver. He was overjoyed to land a job, but the couple is still facing significant financial struggles.

Anno makes about $24,000 a year, roughly the same salary he earned in the Navy. But in the Navy, he received a housing allowance and other supplements, plus they had income from his wife’s bartending job. Their total income is less than half of what it used to be.

They’ve maxed out their credit cards and can’t keep making payments on what they owe. Luxuries like cable are out, and Anno doesn’t even own a cell phone. Going to college, owning a home or starting a family seem far beyond reach.

Anno said he’s never leaned liberal, but he might have voted for Obama again if the economy were doing better. Instead, he thinks Obama has made things worse. That’s why he’s voting for Romney.

“I don’t completely agree with everything that (Romney) says, but I think that the bottom line – the most important thing – is that we get rid of Obama,” he said.

John Makely / NBC News

Joseph Brechtel of Loveland, Colo., is happier out of the corporate world but still struggles to make ends meet.

Colorado resident Joseph Brechtel also has taken a steep trip down the economic ladder, but the experience has left him inclined to give Obama more time to try to solve the nation’s problems.

“Things are so screwed up that they need to give Obama another four years to finish what he’s doing,” he said. “Four years is not enough time to fix everything.”

Brechtel, 32, started his career on the fast track:  He was already taking college-level courses in high school, and by the time he was in his mid-20s he was pulling in upward of $80,000 a year in the electronic data storage field.

He was laid off in 2008. After about a year of unemployment, he took a new position that paid less – around $50,000 – and required a long commute from Fort Collins to Denver.

He quit just a few months later, in the fall of 2009, because he said he couldn’t take the stress and the fact that his bosses were asking him to do things that he didn’t consider completely ethical. Disillusioned with the corporate world and looking to simplify his life, he sold his house and moved from Fort Collins to a basement in nearby Loveland.

There he found work delivering pizzas for a restaurant where he’d been a loyal customer.

He might make $20,000 this year, depending on tips. A lot of his money goes to the $441 a month he pays for health insurance. After health care, rent and car insurance, there isn’t much left for luxuries. Still, he said he doesn’t miss the stress, and he hated that his job automating data storage systems often put people out of work.

These days, he said, people are always happy to see him because he’s bringing pizza.

“I decided I needed at least some time to be happy,” he said. “If I drop dead at 40 of a heart attack and all I’ve done is gotten rid of people’s jobs, that’s not much of a legacy.”

While Brechtel has so far shunned offers to go back to the corporate world, Kisich, the woodworker, has kept occasionally applying for science positions in the Denver area.

He thinks he might have been able to get a job in his field if he’d been willing to move to the East or West coast, but that would separate the divorced father from his son.

“How can I be a parent if I do that?” he asked. “I’ll be a child support check.”

Still, it’s a struggle to get by on such a low salary. He’s dipped into savings and taken equity out of the suburban home he shares with a roommate. He worries about what would happen if he got hurt or sick. He has no health insurance and needs to be physically healthy to do his job.

Kisich, who earned his Ph.D. after a stint as a Russian linguist in the Air Force, thinks he’s probably more suited to science than furniture building, which he taught himself to do. But for now, he sees few other options.

“This is a thing that I have to make work because I don’t know how else to earn a living,” he said.

That is what it comes down for many people that have slipped down the ladder.

David Friedman / NBC News

Helen Tucker picks up prescription medications last month in Virginia Beach, Va. Without health insurance, she's paying for her medical expenses out of pocket.

When the economy took a turn for the worse, Helen Tucker lost her $13-an-hour job working for a lighting company in rural Virginia. Soon after, she got divorced from her husband of 29 years.

Tucker, 54, had never been laid off, and she’d always been able to find a job if she wanted one. But this time, it took about a year before she eventually found a job working in the deli section of a grocery store in Virginia Beach, Va., about 100 miles away from where she owns a home in Heathsville, Va. She now lives in Virginia Beach with her grown son and a roommate, while her grown daughter lives at her home.

Tucker makes $8.76 an hour and has no health insurance. That’s been a major problem for her because she has some health issues and worries about the cost of her medications. She says she’s too proud to accept food stamps.

Tucker has traditionally worked for small businesses and favored the more pro-business candidate. But this year, she’s undecided.

“There are a lot of things about Obama that I like,” she said, “but there are some things that he’s done that I’m very unhappy about.”

Still, she also has reservations about Romney, especially now that she is seeing things from the perspective of the working poor.

“I don’t know that he has any idea what some of us are – what a lot of us  - are going through,” she said.

She said she’s only going to vote if she feels like she can make an intelligent decision. If she skips this election, she said it would be the first time since 1976 that she hasn’t voted.

Deanne Fitzmaurice / for NBC News

Michelle Guerrero, seen here with daughter Elizabeth Veihl, 7, is undecided about who to vote for.

Bill and Michelle Guerrero have taken a big financial hit together, but the experience has left them with split feelings about the upcoming election.

Bill Guerrero, 48, spent more than a decade in the telecommunications industry before losing his job in that field in late 2001. Since then, he’s worked a series of low-wage jobs, and currently is making around $27,000 working in the arcade at a Reno casino. That’s about half what he says he once made.

His wife, 29, has been out of work for several years and has returned to school with the hope of becoming an X-ray technician, even though it means taking on substantial student loan debt. But meanwhile, the couple and Michelle’s two kids are surviving on his wages and food stamps, and the occasional help of a close family friend.

Deanne Fitzmaurice / for NBC News

Bill Guerrero, seen with stepson Cody Veihl, 8, earns about half what he once did.

Guerrero plans to vote for Obama. That’s partly because he thinks Obama needs more time to finish his recovery plan, and partly because he has been frustrated by things like Romney’s comments about the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax.

Michelle can’t make up her mind. She’s traditionally been a Republican, but she worries that Romney doesn’t understand what it’s like for people like her, who are among the working poor but are trying to better their circumstances.

She appreciates that Obama’s policies may help working poor people more, but she frets that they are adding too much to the national debt.

“Right now I’m truly undecided,” she said. “One second I’m Obama, the next I’m Romney.”

Related: Read other stories from our Down the Ladder series.