Unemployment rate falls in D.C., rises in Virginia and Maryland

August 17, 2012

The unemployment rate ticked up last month in 44 states and jumped more significantly in seven states that are considered up for grabs in the presidential race, the federal government reported Friday.

The state figures are not as closely followed as the national unemployment report that comes out on the first Friday of every month. Yet with campaigns fixated on the economy, any release of jobs data has become a highly anticipated political event.

The Romney campaign continued Friday to hammer President Obama for his stewardship of the economy, noting that in Florida, unemployment increased from 8.6 to 8.8 percent in July. But the issue cuts both ways. In New Jersey, unemployment rose to a 35-year high, making GOP Gov. Chris Christie a subject of renewed attacks from his Democratic rivals.

In hotly contested Virginia, the unemployment rate rose from 5.7 to 5.9 percent, the second straight month in which there was an increase. The state, however, added 21,300 jobs, many from the financial services and leisure and hospitality industries.

Ann D. Lang, senior economist at the Virginia Employment Commission, said the state still has the 10th-lowest unemployment rate in the nation. She noted that last summer, the rate also briefly increased before resuming its downward trend.

Only the District of Columbia, Idaho and Rhode Island reported lower unemployment rates. In the District, the unemployment rate dipped to 8.9 percent, the lowest since February 2009, when the rate was 8.7 percent.

Embattled D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said city initiatives were responsible for the improvement. But James Bohnaker, an associate economist at Moody’s Analytics, said the job growth came from hospital systems making a push to boost their presence in Washington.

The Maryland unemployment rate rose from 6.9 to 7 percent, though the state also added 800 jobs, the first time that number was positive since the beginning of 2012.

Although candidates of both parties are using the state figures to shape voters’ perceptions of the economy, many analysts question the importance of the numbers. They say it is hard to draw any conclusions from the new data and that many states cited for higher unemployment rates are adding jobs.

The national unemployment rate has long been viewed by Republicans as their silver bullet in the 2012 election. No president in modern times has been reelected with unemployment over 8 percent, and the rate stands at 8.3 percent.

But as states have fought to get back on their feet, the governors running for reelection have sought to emphasize how much progress they have made. More than half of the governors are Republicans and many of them are running the country’s swing states, leading to some mixed messaging from the GOP.

In Florida and Virginia, for example, Republicans have run ads pointing to economic progress under Govs. Rick Scott (R) and Robert F. McDonnell (R), respectively. The Romney campaign and national groups, meanwhile, are saying in their ads that Obama has a poor economic record in those states.

Several key swing states — including Virginia, Iowa, Ohio and New Hampshire — boast notably lower unemployment rates than the national average of 8.3 percent. Michigan and Nevada, two other battleground states, have higher jobless rates at 9 percent and 12 percent, respectively.

Michigan, which saw a rise of 0.4 percent in joblessness in July, is among five states that have had the sharpest decrease in unemployment rates over the past year, dropping 1.6 percent.

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate rose to 7.3 percent in July, up from 7 percent in June. John Koskinen, chief economist for the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, said the uptick in that battleground state is partly because of the drought.

“We could be seeing some of the lift in unemployment because we’re seeing people return to the workforce,” he said.

In Nevada and Florida, which have been devastated by the puncturing of the housing bubble, unemployment remains high and state leaders see mixed improvement.

Nevada’s jobless rate rose 0.4 percent to 12 percent, keeping it the state with the highest unemployment in the country. But the state also added 2,100 jobs.

In Florida, many people have entered the labor market, even though not many jobs are being created.

“I wouldn’t be inclined to draw too much [from the July data],” said Chris Jones, president of Florida Economic Advisors. “I would say that we seem to have had an increase in the number of unemployed but we don’t really know why when we start poring into the details.”

Florida has seen some of the most success in the past year in reducing its unemployment rate, which has dropped from 10.6 percent in July 2011 to 8.8 percent a year later. The improvement has given Scott some bragging rights as he runs for reelection.

Another Republican governor who has played up economic successes is Christie, who even coined a term for it: “The Jersey Comeback.”

His state, though, has seen its unemployment rate rise from 9.2 to 9.8 percent over the past two months — its highest level in 35 years — and Democrats say his policies are to blame. In response, Christie’s office on Friday issued a background document pointing to job growth in nine of the past 11 months.

Nathan Daschle, former executive director of the Democratic Governor’s Association, summed up the friction between the national and state races: “Any Democratic governor who’s running for reelection, if the state has bad employment, it creates tension with the White House.”

By contrast, if you’re a Republican governor in a state with a favorable unemployment picture, “you’re probably going to be a little cautious about jumping on the Mitt Romney bandwagon, because you’ve got your own record that you’re going to run on.”

Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

Jia Lynn Yang is a staff writer at The Washington Post who covers policy and business. Before joining the Post, she worked at Fortune magazine.
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