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Obama's Battleground-State Economic Silver Lining May Be A Mirage

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Back in late April, even as the nation's economy began to pitch and yaw in the wrong direction after a robust mini-recovery in the winter months gave hope for a turnaround, the Associated Press' Paul Wiseman pointed to 2012's battleground states, where the unemployment rate was edging downward in spite of the larger economic headwinds. Wiseman captured the electoral stakes right from the jump: "The improving economy is swinging the pendulum in President Barack Obama's favor in the 14 states where the presidential election will probably be decided."

Conversation grew from there around the notion that whatever was happening in the swing states economically, was favoring Obama, and primarily explained why he was polling better than Romney in many of these states. One month to the day after Wiseman first reported on this, Bloomberg swung in for a pass, and arrived at the same conclusion:

The unemployment rates in a majority of the 2012 battleground states are lower than the national average as those economies improve. Coupled with the growth of adult minority populations in those states, the trends create a higher bar for presumed Republican Party presidential nominee Mitt Romney in his quest to unseat Obama.

Flash-forward to the end of May, however, and the press was given something new to chew over -- a slate of NBC/Marist polls from the same battleground states where the job picture was rosier (and Obama's path to electoral college wins presumably more certain) told a different story: The race was tightening. In Iowa, Obama and Romney were deadlocked, despite the state's relatively nice 5.1 percent unemployment rate. In Colorado, Obama was up by just 1 point. In Nevada, the incumbent was up by 2. For all the talk about the favorable economy in these locations, the results on the ground were shaping into a set of dead heats.

Over at Salon, Steve Kornacki's takeaway was that Obama had lost this widely reported "silver lining," noting that Obama was not "getting any extra credit" for these states' "relatively strong economy." True to his ethic, Kornacki went searching for what explanation political science had to offer on the matter:

A team of political scientists investigated the effect of state-level unemployment on presidential popularity and concluded that it has one-fifth the effect of national-level jobless data. That is to say:

"[a] one percent increase in the national unemployment rate is associated with a roughly 3 percentage point-decrease in presidential approval. Controlling for national trends, an additional 1 percentage point state-level increase in unemployment is associated with roughly a 0.6 percentage point decrease in approval."

This may help explain why clear majorities in Iowa and Colorado say the country is heading in the wrong direction.

Admittedly, I originally found the notion that Obama might catch a lucky break in the battleground states to be a pretty compelling theory, and I gave it its due. That may have been a myopic mistake on my part however, because once I started considering the matter from a distance other than 30,000 feet in the air, I could see why positive state-level unemployment numbers in the middle of a nation-wide employment emergency wouldn't be all that valuable to voters.

To put it simply, this is not how normal people experience and react to economic dislocation. Sure, if you're in Iowa, you might be prospering with that 5.9 percent unemployment rate (you may not have stopped prospering, actually -- as Kornacki points out, "unemployment never spiked in Iowa in 2009 and 2010 the way it did in other states"). But one's economic world doesn't stop with yourself. Your Iowa voter may have a sister stuck in an underwater mortgage in Southern California. His wife's brother might be long-term unemployed in North Carolina. Maybe his best pal from college, who he's keeping up with on Facebook, got laid off and is now commuting three states away to the only job he can find. And if he's got kids of his own, he's likely spent more than a few quiet hours contemplating the high stakes of student loans.

So, even if we're lucky to have Americans doing better than most in places like Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, or Ohio, they still have people they love throughout the nation. And they know that their prosperity may eventually be their loved ones' cushion against disaster.

When things are tough all over, then things are tough even in the happiest of homes. So that battleground state "silver lining," was probably a mirage.

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