We recently published an article asking, “What’s the Magic Number?” and suggested the national unemployment rate alone was not a particularly good indicator of the presidential results. That’s not to say high unemployment can ever help an incumbent president or party win a new term. It’s just not the alpha and the omega of an election.
We continue to see analyses and news stories insisting otherwise. So for your consideration, we took a brief look at the state-by-state unemployment rate (August 2011, the latest available) to underline our argument. No one knows what unemployment will be by Election Day 2012, but it’s very unlikely to have fallen dramatically from today’s 9.1% — and whatever the changes, the state-versus-state rates may stay about the same, relative to one another.
The Electoral College insures 51 individual battles for the presidency (50 states plus D.C.). So take a look at the unemployment rates by state in Chart 1.
Chart 1: State-level unemployment rates, ranked from highest to lowest and color-coded by the Crystal Ball’s latest state presidential ratings.
Barring a massive GOP landslide, does anyone really believe California (12.1%) or Rhode Island (10.6%) will vote Republican? Yet their unemployment rates are in the top eight.
The list of Republican states with relatively low unemployment rates (under 7%) is longer: Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming. If you believe a single one of these states will be won by President Obama, you’re a Democrat in contention for the Optimists Club’s person-of-the-year.
Yes, there are states where the unemployment rate can help or hurt President Obama: The swing states where arguments on the economy may well sway independent voters. Low unemployment in places such as Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Virginia could give the Democrats a boost. On the other hand, high unemployment in Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina could add to Obama’s troubles as he seeks a return victory in those three states. Any Republican nominee is going to make hay out of their high unemployment numbers every time he or she sets foot there.
And note Ohio: The ultimate swing state is the only state in the Union that has the same unemployment rate (9.1%) as the national average.
So, as usual, a sweeping generalization can’t take into account the complexity of American politics. The unemployment rate will be part of the debate in fall 2012, but the more nuanced state data will be more influential — though not determinative — in shaping the outcome.