President Obama greets steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio. (Susan Walsh/AP)
With a national unemployment rate that's dropping, but still likely to be around 8 percent by November, most observers are predicting a closely fought presidential race. After all, no president since World War Two has won re-election with a jobless rate over 7.2 percent, which was the percentage when President Reagan won a landslide in 1984.
But a look at the states where the election will likely be determined offers a slightly brighter picture for President Obama. According to data released by the Labor Department Tuesday, the list of places that have seen the largest drops in unemployment over the last year includes several key swing states.
Across the country, sixteen states saw declines in their jobless rates by 1 percent or more between January 2011 and January 2012 -- better by a statistically significant margin than the 0.8 percent drop in the national rate. Fully half of those states -- Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, Oregon, Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Colorado -- are expected to be crucial contests this fall, with the latter four seen as particularly pivotal. With a 1.9 percent drop, Michigan's improvement was by far the best in the nation.
Michigan (9 percent) and Florida (9.6 percent) still have rates well above the national average of 8.3 percent -- but the improvements could nonetheless give Obama a big boost. Most political scientists say it's the trajectory of the jobless rate, rather than its absolute level, that has more of an impact on voters.
Team Obama has been working to capitalize on the brighter picture. It's been relentlessly reminding voters in the industrial midwest of its decision to bail out the auto industry, whose revival since its near-collapse in 2009 has driven a large part of the region's growth. And it's been touting a broader manufacturing renaissance, in which the number of manufacturing jobs has now increased for two straight years, after having dropped every year since 1997.
Republicans say things aren't as good as they should be. "This president has not succeeded, this president has failed—and that's the reason we're going to get rid of him in 2012," Mitt Romney said Friday, noting that the national jobless rate has been over 8 percent for the last three years.
And of course, unemployment isn't everything. With sky-high gas prices, slow wage growth, and the threat of inflation, voters may still feel a financial pinch even with the jobless rate moving in the right direction.
But if, come November, some of the most crucial states are still seeing a better rate of improvement in their jobs picture than the country as a whole, that could be a key factor in President Obama's favor.
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