Why Romney's Record as Governor Barely Matters

It's a stretch to say Romney was responsible for weak job creation during the four years he governed Massachusetts.

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada.

We've now reached the I'm-the-rubber-you're-the-glue-bounces-off-me-and-sticks-to-you phase of the presidential campaign.

For the last few years, Republicans have been blasting President Obama as a job-killing president. But Obama has now found somebody he can call a job killer: his Republican opponent in the presidential campaign, Mitt Romney.

The Obama campaign claims that while Romney was governor of Massachusetts, from 2003 to 2007, the Bay State fell from 36th to 47th in terms of job creation among states. On cue, Obama supporters have taken to the talk shows to blast Romney's handling of the Massachusetts economy back then. And this comes, of course, after earlier installments in the Romney-bashing blitz that characterized his career at Bain Capital as that of a corporate raider indifferent to jobs or ordinary people's livelihood.

The reason these kinds of attacks work (sometimes) is because of the enduring myth that politicians can control the economy. The reality is that elected officials can make a marginal impact on the economy, at best. But most of the time, other factors are far more powerful.

That seems to have been the case in Massachusetts when Romney was governor. Job growth during his tenure was, in fact, slow. From January 2003 to January 2007, employment grew by just 1.5 percent, according to Labor Dept. data, compared with 5.2 percent for the nation as a whole. If you start the four-year time period in 2004, to give Romney's policies time to take effect, there's a smaller but still notable gap between job growth in Massachusetts and in the United States overall.

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But the nature of the Massachusetts economy and other factors having nothing to do with politics probably explain most of that. Massachusetts is a wealthy state with a highly developed economy and a workforce that's among the most educated anywhere. Massachusetts, for example, had the third-highest per capita income in the nation when Romney took office, and also when he left. (It now has the second-highest per capita income, at nearly $54,000, second only to Connecticut.)

Economic growth by its nature tends to be slower in places that have already experienced a lot of it, while it's faster in other places that are catching up. That's a phenomenon America itself is facing right now, as emerging markets like China and India grow at a rate that's three or four times faster than the growth rate here.

Like much of the northeast and the Rust Belt, Massachusetts has also been the home of aging industries being displaced by newer ones that tend to spring up someplace else, such as textiles and computer manufacturing. Population trends also work against the Massachusetts economy. The state's population grew more slowly than all but six other states between 2000 and 2010, according to Census data. That reflects a general population shift away from the crowded northeast and its cold winters, toward western and southern states. Don't blame Romney for that; neighboring states such as Rhode Island and New York grew at an even slower rate between 2000 and 2010.

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Massachusetts even suffered a net outflow of more than 100,000 adults between the ages of 25 and 44 during Romney's tenure, according to economic consulting firm EMSI of Moscow, Idaho. When workers in their peak earning years move elsewhere, it cuts into growth and slows job creation.

Here are a couple of final data points that might best summarize Romney's performance as governor. When he came into office, the statewide unemployment rate was 5.6 percent, slightly better than the national level. Four years later, when Romney left office, it had fallen to 4.6 percent, which matched the national figure. The correlation suggests that the Massachusetts economy was most affected by the same forces that affected the national economy, which is usually the case, except for a handful of states rich in energy or susceptible to unique factors such as extreme weather or vast corruption.

It's hard to draw any lessons from Romney's four years as governor that would reveal how he'd handle the problems the U.S. economy faces now. But that won't stop pundits from trying, or Obama from bashing.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.