New data show that the jobless rate fell in 41 states last month, including seven that are considered key swing states in the 2012 election. And in five swing states, the jobless rate is below the national rate of 7.8 percent.
The jobless rate fell in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin from August to September, according to numbers released today by the Labor Department. Among 10 swing states, Iowa had the lowest rate at 5.2 percent.
It certainly doesn't hurt President Obama's chances that the jobless rate in some key states, especially delegate-rich Ohio and Florida, has improved over time and now stands at 7.0 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively. But swing-state job creation only matters so much, especially as Election Day draws near.
"I think it can be overstated," says Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "The question about the state [jobless rate] is pretty abstract to people."
Schier says that voters tend to think about the economy on two levels: personal and national. They consider their individual experiences — their incomes, how much they pay for gas, their own jobs—and also broader macroeconomic trends, like the national unemployment rate and whether the economy as a whole is growing. State jobless rates, meanwhile, tend to matter less.
"I think their town, their region, where they live, that's more real even than the state characteristics," Schier says.
Though state unemployment may not figure into voters' decisions, it's still meaningful, says Schier. The measure of state economic health can show how likely it is that a voter will perceive the economy positively or negatively.
Here is where the unemployment rate stands in 10 swing states, as well as how it's trending.
|Unemployment Rate (Sept.)||Change Since Aug. 2012||Change Since Sept. 2011|
Based on these numbers, a voter in Nevada, the state with the highest jobless rate in the country, might more likely feel like the economy is doing poorly than a voter in New Hampshire, where the jobless rate is at 5.7 percent.
Then again, the Nevadan may also perceive more economic improvement, as the jobless rate there has fallen by nearly two percentage points over the last year.
So the job market's health and trajectory both can influence a vote, as can other economic measures like housing sales and prices, and economic growth. Add in all of the additional factors that go into a voting decision — social issues, religion, peer pressure — and this kind of analysis can seem fruitless.
But further improvement in the job market could still affect the election's outcome, if only marginally. When the next national jobs report comes out — four days before people actually cast votes on November 6 — a remarkably positive or negative report could either reinforce or shift a voter's views.
"People only gradually revise their perceptions. They look for a sustained pattern of activity in their experience," says Schier.
That means that the next jobs report won't make or break the election, but a positive report could combine with recent reports showing an improving trend to further convince voters that the economy is on the mend. Likewise, a negative report could reinforce perceptions of a weak recovery.
Longer-term trends matter not only from a voter perspective but from an economic perspective, says Jim Diffley, managing director of the U.S. Regional Economic Group at forecasting firm IHS Global Insight. The number of jobs that the economy adds in any given month is "always something that bounces around. We've always known that. We always say, 'Never take one month completely seriously,'" says Diffley.
In other words, a 0.2-point decline in Ohio's September unemployment rate may not mean much. But if the state's voters perceive further improvement this month, it could inch the Obama team closer to a win there and on to re-election.
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Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter @titonka or via E-mail at email@example.com.