With the Obama and Romney campaigns sprinting to the Nov. 6 election, each new poll, speech, and economic stat takes on heightened significance—but the state employment figures released Friday offer more confusion than clarity.
The latest September numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics can be chopped up in a way to tell whichever story a campaign wants voters to hear. That helps to explain why an election all about the economy actually revolves around likability and how well both candidates relate to voters.
“The general American public—I think their eyes glaze over,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron in the swing state of Ohio. “They’re pre-disposed to cherry pick.”
The monthly jobs data is drawn from two different surveys (household and establishment) and subject to wide revisions. Here are different ways to parse the Friday numbers from 12 battleground states tracked by RealClearPolitics:
• Nine reported drops from August in the unemployment rate, according to the household survey, so the momentum looks positive for Obama. In averages of polls by RealClearPolitics, Republican Mitt Romney is only ahead in four swing states right now: Colorado, Florida Missouri and North Carolina
• Only half (Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin) had unemployment rates below the 7.8 percent national unemployment rate, which makes the picture looked a bit more mixed for Obama. Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsyvlania are still laggards.
• Four (Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and New Hampshire) suffered net job losses, according to the establishment survey, a decline that Romney could potentially exploit.
Taken as a whole, the numbers point toward what voters already know inherently: the recovery from the 2008 crisis has been tenuous, slow and uneven. Nevada—a state crippled by the burst of the housing bubble—has an atrocious unemployment rate of 11.8 percent, but it’s much better than the 13.6 percent of 12 months ago.
None of that progress gets mentioned in a recent Nevada ad for Republican Mitt Romney that features former NBA player Greg Anthony, who was born and in the Las Vegas area.
“When you look at unemployment, it’s probably the highest in the country—double digits, right now,” Anthony says in the television spot. “I voted for Barack Obama, thought he would be a centrist. I really lost faith in him. I’m supporting Mitt Romney. He’s a no excuse kind of guy.”
Nevada’s unemployment rate is the highest in the nation, unless Puerto Rico—at 13.6 percent—is included. So when choosing between interpretations of the Nevada jobs numbers, Republicans are apt to compare them to the national average, while Democrats rely on the positive trend of the past year. The political conclusions are easily baked into the data.
“Unless there’s a tremendous sea change,” Cohen said, “there’s not a lot at this point that’s going to change people’s opinion about the economy.”