The nation’s economy has been central to the presidential campaign rhetoric so far, with Republican candidates chastising the Obama administration for failing to pull the country out of the recession more quickly.
Even with the new jobs figures, a central point of their attack remains unblunted: The unemployment rate remains above 8 percent.
“Unfortunately, these numbers cannot hide the fact that President Obama’s policies have prevented a true economic recovery. We can do better,” former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said in a statement as he campaigned in Nevada the day before the state’s GOP caucuses.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, when asked on CNN whether Obama deserves any credit for the lower unemployment rate, scoffed: “Give him some credit. If it makes you happy, give him some credit.”
Obama’s campaign team, and some political scientists, believe that voters are more likely to be swayed by the direction the unemployment rate is moving — downward — rather than its exact level.
Jobs and the campaign
Lynn Vavreck, an associate professor of political science and communications at UCLA, has studied the effect of gross domestic product and the unemployment rate on presidential campaigns going as far back as 1952.
Her analysis shows that there appears to be little or no connection between an incumbent president’s vote share and the unemployment rate.
But there is a clear connection between votes for the incumbent and the direction the unemployment rate is moving.
“Is it good that the unemployment rate is dropping for Obama? Yes, it’s good,” Vavreck said. “Does it matter what it drops to? No. That’s actually pretty irrelevant.”
She said there is no particular “magic” unemployment rate that would guarantee his reelection.
“The trend since this president took office is what’s most significant,” said an Obama campaign official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. “It’s the story over time as the president has taken action to address the historic economic challenges he faced when he came into office.”
On its Web site, the Obama campaign posted a chart that illustrated 23 consecutive months of private-sector job growth and encouraged supporters to e-mail it to friends “to make sure people know the good news about President Obama’s record on jobs.”
The chart included a summary of White House initiatives since Obama took office, including the Recovery Act, which provided a $787 billion stimulus; a bailout loan to the auto industry; and the payroll tax cut.
The campaign official said the chart had already become one of the campaign’s most popular social media items, having been e-mailed and posted on Facebook and Twitter hundreds of thousands of times by Friday afternoon.
Staff writers Felicia Sonmez and Philip Rucker in Washington and Paul Kane and Dan Balz in Nevada contributed to this report.