The Swing States: The Economies That Matter

The unemployment rate in Rhode Island is 11.2 percent, but that doesn't matter to either campaign because that blue state is a reliable win for President Obama.

The same goes for Oklahoma, where the unemployment rate is 5 percent - that red state will probably fall into Mitt Romney's column regardless.

Because the United States still holds elections under the arcane rules of the electoral college, only a handful of states will determine who the next president is. And in those states, the state of the economy is much more important, politically of course, than in the old party standard bearers.

The good news for Obama is that five key swing states have unemployment rates that are below the national average, which is 8.2 percent as of last week. New Hampshire is at 5 percent; Iowa is at 5.1 percent; Virginia is at 5.6; Ohio is 7.4; and Colorado, 7.9.

Three swing states, however, have unemployment rates higher than the national average: Florida, with 8.7 percent; North Carolina, with 9.4 percent; and Nevada, with 11.7 percent, the highest in the country.

But in the states at the high end of unemployment, a downward trend could work in Obama's favor.

Nevada has the steepest curve downward. In August its unemployment rate was 13.8 percent, more than two points higher than what it is now. The difference between then and now is one of the biggest in the country and suggests the line could continue to drop. Between January and February, for example, Nevada's unemployment rate shrunk from 12.7 percent to 12.3 percent.

Florida, too, has seen a lowering of its unemployment rate since August, when the number there was 10.5 percent. Between February and March, the number dropped from 9.4 percent to 9 percent, and is now at 8.7 percent.

And in North Carolina, a 10.4 percent rate in December shrunk to 9.9 percent by February, and is now at 9.4 percent.

The unemployment rate isn't a completely accurate picture of the number of people who have jobs. For whatever reason, the government doesn't count unemployed people who have stopped looking for work, which means the unemployment rate could be artificially low. However, in a campaign about economic perception, those details might not matter so much as long as the numbers are in headlines.

In the swing states with lower-than-average unemployment rates, the line is generally decreasing but has held steady in recent months, with the occasional uptick - not hot news for the White House.

For almost a year, New Hampshire's unemployment rate has wavered between 5.5 percent and 5 percent, where it is now. In Virginia, the rate has dropped from 6.4 percent to 5.6 percent in that same time. Iowa saw its unemployment rate dip from 6 percent to 5.1 percent from August to April. Colorado's rate has varied just slightly from 8.3 percent to 7.9 percent since July.

The state with the biggest recent drop below the unemployment rate average is the always politically tricky Ohio, an ever-important battleground. In July, it was at 8.9 percent, and now it's at 7.4 percent.

The other question, of course, is who deserves credit for lowering unemployment. Obama has tried his best to portray himself as the overseer of mass job creation. Just today, he staged a newsless press conference at the White House and said "we've created 4.3 million new jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone."

Republican governors would rather give themselves credit. Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, for instance, has said that he's creating a business-friendly environment in his state by opposing business regulations. "What is causing us not to grow as fast as we should in Ohio is uncertainty," Kasich said last month on Fox News, referring to Obama's policies.

GOP governors have noted happily, though, that their states are recovering. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida said at the beginning of the year that "Florida got to work, and each Floridian deserves the credit." Nevada's Brian Sandoval boasted in December that "Nevada is on the move again" and that "we are seeing signs, some large, some small, of economic improvement."