If indeed polls are snapshots of public opinion, here’s a partial album from Battleground America.

Mitt Romney has erased an earlier 8-point deficit in Virginia, the Old Dominion now split even at 44% between President Obama and his Republican challenger (it remains to be seen which candidate lands the lucrative dead dog vote). In Michigan, Romney’s birth state, it’s Obama by 6% (other polls have the state either as a tossup or solidly Obama).  The President also enjoys a narrow lead in Ohio (47%-45%) as well as Florida. In the latter state, there’s not much in the way of presidential coattails, which spells trouble for Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson (as Nelson goes, so perhaps does control of the U.S. Senate in 2013).

The surveys matter in that, as you read this, political handicappers are looking at the Electoral College and deciding which states go red come November, which go blue, and which precious few are truly up for grabs.

And if the election were held today? Examiner.com’s Electoral College map puts the race at Obama 333, Romney 205 (241 of Obama’s e.v.’s coming from 19 “safe” Democratic states. Moody’s Analytics model says it’s Obama 303, Romney 235 – the President winning Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia and Wisconsin; Romney taking Florida, Missouri and North Carolina among the key battleground states.

So how to account for such a gaudy advantage for the Obama candidacy, at a time when the President is neither all that popular nor is the nation seemingly all that prosperous?

The answer may lie in the jobs numbers from the following dozen states that will decide the outcome of the fall election. Nationally, the economy is in a rut – the same 8.2% unemployment rate in June as in May; 80,000 jobs added (which isn’t that impressive considering we’re a nation of 300 million people, capable of cramming all of our new hires into the Rose Bowl – with plenty of seats to spare).

But in the swing states, Obama can spin the numbers differently: it’s called annual progress. Consider these numbers compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

                                              June 2012*    June 2011**  June 2010***

Colorado                               8.2%               8.4%               8.0%

Florida                                    8.6%              10.7%             11.4%

Iowa                                       5.2%               6.0%               6.1%

Michigan                               8.6%              10.6%             13.2%

Missouri                                7.1%               8.7%               9.1%

Ohio                                       7.2%               8.9%               10.1%

Pennsylvania                       7.5%               8.0%               8.7%

Nevada                                  11.6%            13.8%             14.1%

New Hampshire                  5.1%               5.5%               6.1%

North Carolina                    9.4%               10.6%            10.5%

Virginia                                   5.7%               6.3%               7.0%

Wisconsin                             7.0%               7.6%               8.3%  


* 8.2% nationally

** 9.2% nationally

*** 9.5% nationally


As you can see, the numbers give Obama leeway to talk about progress and a recovery underway (well, not in Colorado, but in eleven of the twelve in question).

But there’s a catch.

While all 12 of the above states have lower unemployment rates compared to a year ago, seven of the battleground states – Colorado (+0.1%), Iowa (+0.1%), Michigan (+0.1%), New Hampshire (+0.1%), Pennsylvania (+0.1%), Virginia (+0.1%) and Wisconsin (0.2%) – saw their numbers go up from the previous month. Only two of the battleground states – Missouri (-0.2%), Ohio (-0.1%) – posted a one-month improvement. The other three states – Florida, Nevada and North Carolina – had the same May/June numbers.

Thus the importance of the soon-to-be released July jobs numbers. If the nation’s unemployment rate is flat for a third consecutive month (or worse) and going south in a majority of the swing states, then the Romney camp can introduce a new phrase to the conversation “bad trend”. Thus begging the question of which matters more to voters – what’s happened over the past three years, or three months?

While 8.2% is the number to look for in the next unemployment report, here’s another figure to keep in mind: 7.2%. That’s the unemployment rate on Election Day 1984, when Ronald Reagan won his second term. As explained here, Reagan had margin for economic error in that election, if you will – a weak opponent, a country on the right track. One could argue that unemployment could have been much higher in November 1984 – over 8.0% perhaps – and Reagan still would have waltzed his way to reelection.

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