COLUMBUS, Ohio – The nation's unemployment rate of 8.2 percent may sink President Barack Obama's re-election bid, but one detail brightens his hopes. About 10 battleground states will decide the election, and seven of them have employment levels that beat the U.S. average.
That doesn't guarantee a second term, of course. But it's a reminder that the national rate, from a purely political standpoint, is not necessarily the be-all, end-all statistic.
Most of the states are led by Republican governors eager to highlight their progress in creating jobs. That complicates GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's claim that the economy has been so mismanaged that Obama deserves to be ousted.
In addition, a chief Romney criticism, that Obama is hindering energy production, is undermined by robust drilling for natural gas that's creating jobs and some wealthy landowners in two important states, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In Ohio, the quintessential toss-up state and practically a must-win for Romney, Republican Gov. John Kasich tries to finesse the political dilemma by saying jobs have increased despite Obama's policies.
"We fight like crazy to outperform the federal government," he told reporters last week in the Statehouse in Columbus. "We have. We're down to 7.4 percent unemployment."
But Ohio can't continually buck the national trend, Kasich said, and he warned of a likely drop in job growth soon, largely due to gridlock and uncertainty in Washington. "Rome is on fire and it's singeing places like Ohio," he said. "We'll go our own way, but the headwinds are kicking up again."
Some of the most politically contested states are struggling more than others.
Florida's unemployment rate has dropped steadily for nearly a year, but at 8.7 percent still tops the national average. North Carolina's rate is even worse, and Nevada has the highest, 11.7 percent.
If Obama were to carry all the competitive states where the employment rate is brighter than the national average — New Hampshire, Iowa, Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado — he would win re-election handily. But if he loses the battleground states where the rate now exceeds 7 percent, an oft-cited threshold that may mean nothing, Romney would prevail because he would take Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado, plus Florida, North Carolina and Nevada.
Romney campaign also must cope with boasts, often by Republicans and business leaders, that things are much better at the local level than in other regions.
"Midwest has economy on right track," said an op-ed headline last week in The Columbus Dispatch. Stephen D. Steinour, president of Huntington Bancshares, wrote: "The Midwest is not only resurgent, it is leading the national economic recovery."
Ohio's unemployment rate has fallen nine months in a row. That trend encourages Obama's supporters, but it might have scant influence on the Nov. 6 election.
Several political scientists' studies have concluded that voters are less influenced by local and state economic trends than by national statistics. Also, U.S. unemployment climbed so sharply, starting in mid-2008, that even a steady decline over the past year still leaves millions without jobs.
Politicians use such statistics to portray their records in the best possible light, and their opponents in the worst. In Ohio, Democrats are seizing on two giants of the industrial sector, energy and automobile production, to try to undercut Romney.
Republicans often accuse Obama of thwarting energy production. But he largely has encouraged the dramatic growth in natural gas extraction taking place in Pennsylvania, Ohio and a few other states. In a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," pressurized water and chemicals are injected into underground shale, extracting oil, natural gas and other profitable gasses.
Thousands of wells have been drilled in western Pennsylvania, helping the state lower its unemployment rate from 8.1 percent last August to 7.4 percent this spring.
Ohio trails Pennsylvania in gas well production. But fracking has boosted Ohio's sagging steel industry through its need for specialized pipes.
Hulking, largely silent steel plants in Youngstown, Canton, Lorain and other towns are adding workers and production lines. The revived U.S. auto industry also is demanding more steel, and there, too, Ohio Democrats see a point to raise against Romney.
Romney opposed federal subsidies that propped up Chrysler and General Motors as they approached bankruptcy in early 2009. Romney said private investments should have been used, but officials overseeing the process said no such funds were available and the companies would have collapsed.
"The rescue of the auto industry was the greatest contributor" to Ohio's recent economic growth, said former Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat ousted by Kasich in 2010. When Romney called it an unwarranted payoff to labor unions, Strickland said, he showed "a lack of understanding of this industry."
If Ohio's manufacturing sector is showing new signs of life, many residents have yet to see it. The impact on the presidential race is hard to predict.
In Elyria, west of Cleveland and not far from Lorain, college-educated people who once made $60,000 a year are begging for jobs as cooks making $9.50 an hour at Applebee's, said the restaurant's manager, Tony Tenorio.
"We get tons and tons of applications," said Tenorio, 30. "We can be really picky."
Across the street are empty buildings that once housed a T.G.I. Friday's, Longhorn Steakhouse and the Eat'n Park cafe. "It's pretty tough," Tenorio said, adding that Applebee's less-expensive entrees are popular.
He said Obama may struggle to win Ohio again this year. "Talking with people, I don't think the working class has his back," Tenorio said. Voters may be willing to give Romney a chance, he said.
"The American people are pulling at straws," Tenorio said. "If this straw doesn't work, maybe another one will."
At a nearby food court, Dave Moore, 68, was having coffee and a snack with some fellow retirees. Moore once had a unionized custodial job at a grocery chain. He retired in 2003, then found it impossible to land another job when he sought work a few years later.
"I can't use a computer," Moore said glumly.
Moore, a Democrat, said he will vote for Obama, albeit with little enthusiasm. "Romney scares me," he said. "He's big business. Does he think of us, the little guy?"
"Obama does a little more for us," Moore said, nibbling a cookie. "It's better than nothing."