Unemployment rate ticks up: Will it affect the election?

The October unemployment rate came in at 7.9 percent, up 0.1 points. But job creation was higher than expected. Both campaigns are spinning the numbers furiously.

David Goldman/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves to supporters at a campaign event in West Allis, Wis., Friday.
Jason Reed/REUTERS
President Obama participates in a campaign rally in Hilliard, Ohio, Friday.

Four days before the presidential election, the uptick in the unemployment rate from 7.8 percent in September to 7.9 percent in October hardly seems politically momentous.   

Unemployment has been high throughout President Obama’s term, and in fact has been trickling downward for three years, when it reached its high-water mark of 10 percent in October 2009. Last month’s overall job growth of 171,000 came in higher than expected. The Labor Department also announced higher job creation in August and September than previously estimated. 

In a statement, the White House said that private sector job growth last month – 184,000 jobs – represented an eight-month high; unemployment went up largely because more people entered the labor force.

“While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the US economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” Alan Krueger, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement.

A national unemployment rate of around 8 percent, where it’s been all year, is already baked into the election horse-race numbers, political analysts say. State-by-state jobless numbers vary widely – from 3 percent in North Dakota to 11.8 percent in Nevada in September, the latest data available – and in fact, often say little about who will win a state’s electoral votes, Mr. Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

But on this Friday before Election Day, Mr. Romney is using the latest national jobs report as a peg to slam Obama for the sluggish economic recovery and make his own pitch for why he would be a more effective president.  

“Today’s increase in the unemployment rate is a sad reminder that the economy is at a virtual standstill,” Romney said in a statement. “The jobless rate is higher than it was when President Obama took office, and there are still 23 million Americans struggling for work.”

At a campaign rally Friday morning in Milwaukee, Romney touted a record of change – in both the private sector and as governor of Massachusetts – and promised as president to work across the aisle.

“You know that if the president is reelected, he will still be unable to work with the people in Congress,” Romney said, pledging to put the nation on track to a balanced budget, tax reform, and “financial responsibility.”

Conservatives responding to this data highlighted segments of the workforce where unemployment rose: Among women, the jobless rate rose from 7.5 percent to 7.7 percent. Among 18-to-24-year-olds, unemployment increased to 15.1 percent. A strong turnout for Obama from both groups – currently backing him in most polls by a 2-to-1 margin – is seen as critical to the president's reelection.

Even looking at the slight rise in the overall rate, Republican strategists see meaning for next Tuesday.

“From a campaign perspective, this is extremely huge, because you’re within the 96-hour window” before Election Day, says Ford O’Connell, head of Civic Forum PAC. “Everybody’s paying attention.”

Though most voters already know how they will vote – and many have already voted – those who remain undecided could swing the election in a race that remains too close to call. Another key factor is motivation to turn out: Voters leaning toward Obama may look at the latest numbers, see a less-than-robust economic recovery, and not go to the trouble to vote.

Young voters and Hispanics, both supporting Obama by 2-to-1 margins in polls, have shown lower enthusiasm for turning out than four years ago.  Still, among Hispanics, their share of the electorate in key battleground states is higher than it was four years ago, so even if their turnout rate is lower, their absolute numbers could still be greater than in 2008.

Public perception of Friday’s jobs report could end up depending on how the news media cover it, says John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University in Washington. His initial take is that it could end up being neutral to favorable to Obama.

“But,” he says, the jobs report is “not a strong enough signal – good or bad – to change much about the election.”

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