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Unemployment Update: Who Gets the Credit?

At the end of January, the Crystal Ball examined the latest state-by-state unemployment numbers and what they could mean for the presidential election. The fact that the nation’s economic difficulties have hit certain places harder than others could have a real impact on what we anticipate will be a close election in November. Our analysis suggested that the Obama campaign could tailor its economic message to each state based on the specific jobless conditions there. While critics of the president would surely prefer to point to statistics like labor-force participation, the unemployment figures presented below, while mixed, could be packaged to tell a positive story for the incumbent in some swing states.

Chart 1: State-by-state unemployment rates, April 2012

Notes: P – preliminary figure; R – revised figure based on populations, model reestimation and new seasonal adjustment.

Source: National Bureau of Labor Statistics

Obviously, the safe Blue and Red states on the chart are going to stick with their preferred party, even if their unemployment is high, as in the case of Democratic states (like California), or low, as in the case of Republican states (like the Dakotas). At the same time, the president would have trouble making a compelling case about jobs in Nevada or North Carolina, for instance — two states that he won in 2008 after George W. Bush won them in 2000 and 2004, and where unemployment, despite a downward trend, remains high. But he has a better argument in states where unemployment is below the national average.

So far, the Obama campaign has run ads promoting the president’s handling of the economy, such as spots that tout the auto industry bailout and mention increased job growth. But are voters buying the pitch and giving Obama credit? That’s up for debate, especially with Republican governors in key swing states, such as Virginia and Ohio, competing with the president for the public’s applause.

In Virginia, in what can mainly be described as a campaign to improve his chances of being Romney’s running mate, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) Opportunity Virginia PAC has run an ad highlighting Virginia’s economic improvement during McDonnell’s tenure. The spot notes that Virginia has its lowest unemployment rate in three years and the lowest in the Southeast. As our chart shows, Virginia’s 5.6% figure is at least 1% better than any other Southern state. Federal spending, particularly defense expenditures, is a big reason why, of course — a point often left unmade in a state whose politicians regularly launch broadsides against “wasteful spending by Washington.”

Meanwhile, Ohio and much of the Rust Belt have seen stirrings of economic improvement. But the president has not necessarily received a significant bump from this news. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that Ohioans who think the Buckeye State’s economy has improved give Gov. John Kasich (R) credit for the change by a 68% to 22% margin over President Obama. Voters who think the economy is worse also blame the sitting governor more than the president, 49% to 27%. Considering Ohio’s unemployment rate has gone from 8.8% in April 2011 to 7.4% last month, both incumbents can brag about the change. But it is far more important for Obama, who is on the ballot this November while Kasich isn’t up for reelection until 2014.

Strategically, the Obama campaign wants to convince voters that the economy is in fact improving. Tactically, this has meant running ads in key swing states that generally promote Obama’s economic stewardship. Yet the campaign might be losing an opportunity if it doesn’t take greater ownership of positive state-specific numbers. Obama’s generic television ads might do more than simply target all the swing states as a bloc. Instead, he could focus on each state separately. If a state’s unemployment rate has improved over the past year, then the president’s campaign could run general election ads that trumpet the success. Ohio and especially Virginia are ideal for such advertising.

In politics, a president gets the blame for anything bad that happens on his watch. Conversely, he gets the credit for anything good that unfolds during his term — that is, if he doesn’t let others take the credit from him. To this point, President Obama has failed to take advantage of the improved jobs numbers in some competitive states with unemployment lower than the national average. In this close election, Obama has little margin for error.