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2012 campaign could turn on uneven recovery in swing states


Despite the focus in recent days on matters of national security, supporters of both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, tend to agree that November’s contest is likely to hinge on the economy. 

At a speech meant to pivot his campaign from the primary season to the general election, Romney said on April 24, “It’s still about the economy, and we’re not stupid.” It was a direct challenge to the president’s record and a move toward making the 2012 election a referendum on Obama’s economic stewardship.

The overall strength of the economy will be illuminated by new jobs data released Friday morning.

While the administration has been able to hang its hat on a series of somewhat positive economic indicators -- the declining unemployment rate, monthly jobs numbers and manufacturing industry recovery -- a potential slowdown in hiring could mean political peril.

But broad statistics don’t tell the whole story. Winning the presidency isn’t decided by national data; it’s decided in the Electoral College, and many of the most hotly contested states make up an occasionally uneven portrait of an economic recovery.

“People will pay attention to their circumstances, and abstract gains are not good enough to outweigh their struggles,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a veteran Republican economic adviser.

Brian Snyder / REUTERS

Mitt Romney waves with his wife Ann after his speech at a primary night rally in Manchester, N.H., on April 24, 2012. "It's still about the economy, and we're not stupid," he told the crowd.

He pointed toward states in the industrial Midwest, where manufacturing growth has been generally slow (though showed signs of improvement this week), and the “sandy states,” such as Nevada and Arizona, where the real estate market is still a long way from recovery.

Many of those states compose the list of the most competitive contests in the NBC News battleground map. That list, which was most recently updated last week, includes Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia as pure toss-up states.

But compare the performance of a state like Ohio, where the unemployment rate stands at 7.5 percent (attributable to a number of workers leaving the labor force while employment has held steady), to a state like Virginia.

In Virginia, the labor force has continued to grow along with employment, contributing to a decline in the unemployment rate to 5.6 percent -- the ninth-best rate in the country. 

“Just from an incumbent’s perspective, anywhere where you have a high unemployment rate, from a political view, that’s a dangerous thing,” said Jennifer Granholm, the former Democratic governor of Michigan, who now hosts “The War Room” on Current TV.

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Granholm’s home state of Michigan, a Democratic-leaning state in the battleground, ranks 36th in unemployment. Nevada has the worst unemployment rate in the country, North Carolina checks in at 47th and Florida ranks 43rd, according to preliminary data through March on record with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Both Republicans and Democrats acknowledge that voters’ opinions of the economy tend to cement several months before the election, not on Election Day. That raises the stakes for the next few months’ worth of reports on economic indicators, which might shape impressions of the economy on a state and national level. 

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One big report comes Friday, when the government releases data on job creation for April. One private firm’s estimates, ADP’s, projected that job creation slowed to its worst pace in seven months. 

Still, Democrats argue, the more important factor at work in the states is whether voters generally believe the economy is improving or declining. 

New polling data released Thursday also suggested a gap in swing-state voters’ perceptions of the economy. Seventy percent of Florida voters and 67 percent of Ohio voters said they think the U.S. is in a recession right now, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.

“I think what really matters to people is less the numbers and a government statistic release than the extent to which they feel a sense of improvement in their lives,” said Jared Bernstein, the former top economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, who maintains close ties to the Obama administration. 

And that could be the silver lining for Obama. In the same Quinnipiac poll, 51 percent of Florida voters said they think the economy is beginning to recover, and 55 percent of Ohio voters said the same.

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The NBC battleground map puts 231 electoral votes -- of the 270 needed for election -- in Obama’s column as a baseline, varying his pathways to victory. It may end up being the case that voters in just enough states feel things are improving -- even if the recovery lags elsewhere -- that the president is able to win a second term. 

But the economy isn’t out of the woods yet, and hurdles to recovery remain.

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“Things always happen. One of the problems is that if you’re growing slowly, something might come along, like a natural disaster, and slow you down,” said Holtz-Eakin.

Granholm said she worried about the impact of higher gas prices or a slide in European economies having an especially pronounced effect on a state like Michigan, which has already weathered a tough, extended downturn. 

“Michigan could not stand another kick in the gut after the decade we’ve been through,” she said. 

But for all of Romney’s efforts to cast himself as the more qualified candidate to engineer a national turnaround, his fight against Obama in each state will more likely hinge on a complex matrix of voter opinions than a simple glance at the economy. 

Consider states across the Midwest, where growth has been somewhat slow but Democrats have been eager to highlight Romney’s role in opposing the bailouts that contributed to the partial recovery of the auto industry.

“There’s no question that the president will be touting the benefits of the auto rescue,” said Bernstein. “Speaking as a former member of the autos task force, I think that's fair, because the political winds were very much blowing in the other direction. He took a pretty bold step there. “