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Gas prices, not jobs stats, are key numbers for voters (+video)

Gas prices and grocery bills are more likely to sway voters than the monthly jobs report, economists and pollsters say. Gas prices are nearing $4 per gallon and could be key in deciding the presidential race.

By Tom RaumAssociated Press / September 17, 2012

This August 2012 file photo shows a gas prices at a Shell gas station in Oklahoma City. Gas prices are the second most important indicator for voters in the 2012 presidential election, according to pollsters.

Sue Ogrocki/AP/File

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Washington

The government's monthly jobs report has become Washington's most anticipated and studied economic indicator, pounced upon by politicians, economists and journalists for snap judgments as the presidential election nears. But in the real world, most everybody else just looks around and figures things out for themselves.

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A group in Virginia offered regular gas at $1.85 a gallon Friday to dramatize the rise in gas prices since President Obama took office.

Is that steel plant closing? Are Ford or General Motors rehiring? How much are those groceries? What's a full tank of gas going to run me? How much is our house worth? How's that 401(k) doing? When will I find another job? Will our college-educated daughter ever find work and move out.

These are the kinds of questions economists and pollsters say are on people's minds more than government statistics.

"People are not looking at these government reports to decide how the economy is doing, or how well they or their neighbors are doing. They know from their own daily experience," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said.

"The flow of economic news matters," but only to supplement what their own eyes tell them, Mellman added.

Given that the unemployment rate hasn't dipped below 8 percent since the first month of President Barack Obama's term, Republicans are seizing on the new jobs numbers that come out the first Friday of each month. The GOP is using the fresh figures to batter the president and revive the question famously asked by Ronald Reagan in 1980: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

"We're going in the wrong direction," GOP nominee Mitt Romney contends. "This president ... doesn't understand what it takes to make our economy work. I do."

The latest numbers show a jobless rate of 8.1 percent for August, with monthly job creation an anemic 96,000, not enough to even match the growth in working-age population. It's doubtful the picture will improve much by Election Day. No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s has won re-election with an unemployment so high.

Unemployment for Roosevelt was then about 15 percent, but falling from around 25 percent. Momentum and direction do count for something.

The economy has lost a staggering 8.8 million jobs in the downturn and has clawed back only 4.1 million. Just two jobs reports remain before the Nov. 6 election — on Oct. 5 and Nov. 2 — and they could be crucial to the outcome.

"To the average person, the economy is a very personal thing," says White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. He said people look at different factors.

But which ones?

"Jobs is still No. 1," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "It's at the top of everyone's list. People might not know the government jobs number that comes out each month, but they see it every day in their lives." A close second right now, Zandi says, are gasoline prices, with the national average grazing $4 a gallon. But otherwise, inflation is generally muted.

Dan Connaghan, 69, a retiree in Traverse City, Mich., who supports Romney, agrees. "Unemployment figures don't have an effect on my vote." He questions their accuracy. But he also says there's one thing he knows for sure: "We're worse off than we were four years ago. No doubt about it."

Pollster Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, said the government numbers "give people a basis of confirmation of their own sense about the economic issues that are the most important to them. And right now, it's jobs."

Only 10 percent of the people in a recent Pew survey consider today's economic conditions "excellent" or "good," Kohut said.

To homeowners, the value of their house ranks high. With nearly half the nation's adult population owning stocks and other securities, mostly through 401(k) and similar programs at work or in pension funds, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is paid some heed.

At its Friday close, the Dow marked its highest level since December 2007, the first month of the recession.

Other reports are more ominous.

The government reported this past week that the income of the typical American household has fallen to levels last seen in 1995.

Interest rates are also followed by many. When they're low, as now, it means individuals and businesses with good credit can borrow money at exceptionally low rates.

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