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Battleground state job markets may decide election

Swing state jobless rates
Swing State Jobless
Much of the U.S. presidential campaign has focused on the national jobless rate, but unemployment levels vary widely in critical swing states considered up for grabs. (Mouse over states for results.)

President Barack Obama got some welcome news earlier this month when the government reported that the national unemployment rate fell below 8 percent - to 7.8 percent - for the first time since he took office. 

But with less than three weeks to go before Election Day, the jobless rates that matter most are the ones in just a handful of states that are up for grabs.

Pundits have argued for months that the president faced a very tough re-election campaign with a national jobless rate that remained stubbornly above 8 percent for 43 months, the longest stretch since the Great Depression.

The latest data on regional and state unemployment rates show they were mostly lower in September. The jobless rate fell in 41 states and the District of Columbia compared to August. It rose in six and was unchanged in three states. Compared to a year ago, jobless rates fell in 44 states and the District of Columbia and rose in six.

Like economic conditions generally, the recession had a very uneven impact on job markets in various regions of the country. Midwest states mostly escaped the housing boom that led to the bust that brought on the Great Recession. Rising energy prices have lifted the economies of energy-rich states like North Dakota. The impact from the ongoing housing bust has been concentrated in a handful of states including Florida and Nevada.

That’s why the health of the job markets in the key “battleground” states will likely have a greater impact than the national, headline number.

Here’s a look at the job outlook in ten key states, as of September, based on the latest jobless data released by the government Friday.

Florida: 29 electoral votes/8.7 percent jobless rate

Of all the battleground states Florida carries the most weight. It’s the state, after all, where a few hundred dangling chads in 2000 swung its 29 electoral votes, and the election, in George W. Bush’s favor.

Florida has been among the hardest hit by the housing crisis and it's still digging out from a deep real estate hole. After a steady decline from a peak of 11.4 percent in early 2010, the unemployment rate has been falling gradually along with the national number. After inching up again this summer, the notched down again in September.

The state is very much a toss-up, according to the latest NBCNews/WSJ/Marist poll. Going into the latest debate this week, the state was a 1-point race with Obama leading Gov. Mitt Romney 47 percent to 46 percent. The most recent numbers show the two locked in a virtual dead heat, with Obama leading 48 percent to 47 percent.

Ohio: 18 electoral votes/7.0 percent jobless rate

Hard-hit by the recession-driven manufacturing downturn, Ohio has seen some improvement as a pickup in car sales has helped boost orders for automakers and parts suppliers dotting the state. Ohio’s unemployment rate peaked in 2010 and has steadily fallen below the national average to the current 7.0 percent rate.

But the drop has been for the wrong reasons: job creation has been much slower than the shrinkage in the state’s labor force as discouraged job seekers have left the state, retired, gone back to school or given up looking. Since peaking in early 2009, Ohio’s labor force has shrunk by 200,000 – or nearly 4 percent.

In this week’s NBC News/WSJ/Marist poll, after a renewed focus by the Romney campaign, Obama leads 51 percent to 45 percent.

North Carolina: 15 electoral votes/9.6 percent unemployment

In contrast to Ohio, North Carolina’s jobless rate is higher than the national average, for the opposite reasons. Job creation has gained steadily since the end of the 2007 recession; employers in the Tar Heel state have added 1.4 million jobs in the past three years, a gain of 3.5 percent. But thanks to an influx of workers attracted by all those new jobs, the labor force has swollen by 1.6 million. That’s kept the jobless rate higher than it would have been if the labor force had remained the same size.

Recent polling data are not available for the state.

Michigan: 16 electoral votes/ 9.3 percent unemployment.

Michigan was one of the states hardest hit by the near collapse of the auto industry in 2008, which is why the Obama campaign has gone to great lengths to take credit for providing the industry with government help. From a peak of 14.2 percent in mid-2009, the jobless rate has fallen steadily.

But only because, like Ohio, a big chunk of Michigan’s labor force has left the state’s job market.

While car sales may have rebounded in the past year, employment in Michigan is still half a million jobs below pre-recession levels. That’s slightly more than the 420,000 people who are no longer looking for work in the state.

The hollowing out of the state’s workforce continues. And after small but steady job gains, overall employment levels began falling again this spring. That sent the jobless rate back on the upswing in August – up 0.4 percent from July. The rate eased a notch to 9.3 percent in September.

The latest opinion polls show the president holding a lead in the state that Romney's father once served as governor – and which is still considered a battleground state by political analysts. The race has tightened, though.

The president leads Romney, 52 percent to 38 percent according to the latest Detroit News/ WDIV Local 4 poll. Obama had a 14.2 point lead last month following a bump from the Democratic National Convention; but that edge has shrunk to 6.7 points after the first presidential debate. Obama now leads Romney in Michigan 49 percent to 42.3 percent, with 7.7 percent of voters undecided.

Virginia: 13 electoral votes/5.9 percent unemployment

Virginia is one of the few states that escaped the recession largely unscathed. The state continues to enjoy a much better job market than the national average, largely because of the steady flow of government jobs and contracts to residents of Virginia's, Washington, D.C., suburbs.

The jobless rate peaked at 7.3 percent in January 2010, and fell steadily to 5.6 percent this summer, but as the pace of layoffs for federal workers has picked up, so has the state’s jobless rate. And with cuts in federal spending looming, that bright job outlook could darken next year.

Romney saw his largest gains this week in Virginia, where he now edges the president 48 percent to 47 percent, a 3-point reversal from last week’s NBCNews/WSJ/Marist poll, released the day of the first presidential debate. The spread is within the poll’s margin of error.

Wisconsin: 10 electoral votes/7.3 percent unemployment

Unemployment in Wisconsin peaked at 9.1 percent in 2010 and has trended lower since the recession ended. But those gradual employment gains reversed course sharply beginning this spring, adding six-tenths of a percent to the jobless rate since April.

The most recent data show the jobless rate trending lower again, beginning in August and falling another two-tenths of a percent in September.

In Wisconsin, Obama is ahead by six points among likely voters, 51 percent to 45 percent, which also is virtually unchanged from last month

Colorado 9 electoral votes/8.0 percent unemployment

Colorado also has yet to recover the more than 100,000 jobs the state lost to the recession. With its workforce roughly unchanged, that slow job growth has recently nudged its jobless rate back up. Unemployment fell from a peak of 9.0 percent in November 2010 to 7.8 percent this January.

Romney pulled a percentage point ahead of Obama in the state, according to recent Denver Post poll, which means the two are still effectively tied. Romney's one-point lead represents a small shift from a Post poll five weeks ago showing Obama with a one-point, 47-46, advantage.

Iowa: 6 electoral votes/5.2 percent unemployment

Iowa largely escaped the housing boom that fed the bust and recession, but its job market still felt the blow. Going into the recession, the state had one of the lowest unemployment levels in the country, at 3.8 percent, though it rose sharply – to 6.3 percent – when the financial storm hit.

Since then, with a highly stable labor force and steady gains in hiring, the jobless rate has fallen gradually, hitting 5.1 percent in June. After bumping up again this spring, the jobless rate is again trending lower.

According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll – which was conducted from Monday through Wednesday, encompassing Tuesday’s presidential debate in New York– Obama receives the support of 51 percent of likely voters in Iowa to Romney’s 43 percent. That eight-point margin is unchanged from the NBC/WSJ/Marist poll released last month (before the debate season began), when the president led his Republican opponent 50 percent to 42 percent.

Nevada 6 electoral votes/11.8 percent unemployment

Like its housing market, Nevada saw one of the sharpest reversals of fortune in the jobs numbers when the recession sent the unemployment rate from a pre-recession 4.2 percent to a peak of 14.0 percent in October 2010. Since then, the recovery has been steady, but slow.

Obama recovered some lost ground among older Nevada voters since his first-debate against Romney, according to a new poll, commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and 8NewsNow, that shows the president holding a three-point edge over Romney, 48 percent to 45 percent.

Romney expanded his lead over Obama among independents, according to the survey

New Hampshire: 4 electoral votes/5.7 percent unemployment

The Granite state also entered the recession with among the lowest jobless rates in the country, 3.4 percent, but also saw a sharp spike (to 6.7 percent) which has been gradually receding. By April of this year, the rate had fallen to 5.0 percent. But employment levels began rising again this summer.

The New Hampshire race is tied, according to a recent WHDH 7News Suffolk University poll, which shows both Romney and Obama winning 47 percent of the vote.

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