Since the beginning of this presidential race, it has long been assumed that Obama would suffer his greatest losses in the midwestern states, thanks to high unemployment, eroding manufacturing, and Obama’s tendency to alienate blue collar whites for cultural and other reasons. The early read was that Obama’s chances would turn on whether he’d be able to offset those losses by holding western and New South states he’d flipped in 2008 — Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina.

It turns out, however, that Obama’s best path to victory may run through the midwest, after all. Yesterday’s NBC/WSJ polls found Obama with leads in Wisconsin and Iowa. This, combined with his small but persistent lead in Ohio, is creating what MSNBC’s First Read crew calls Obama’s “midwest firewall.”

Here’s something that could help explain this: New Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that the unemployment rate in the midwest is lower than in any other region in the country.

BLS released its state by state unemployment data this morning. It shows that the unemployment rate has ticked down in the midwest since August, to 7.4 percent. That’s lower than the national average, and lower than all other regions. The midwest includes Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa, along with other bluer states like Michigan and Minnesota.

In all the key midwestern battlegrounds, unemployment is lower than the national average. In Ohio, the unemployment rate is 7.0, down from 7.2 last month. In Wisconsin, it’s 7.3, down from 7.5 last month. In Iowa, it’s 5.2, down from 5.5.

There are some anomalies here. Virginia, which seems more likely than not to tilt to Romney, has a 5.9 unemployment rate. And in Nevada, which the Obama campaign believes it is on the verge of securing, unemployment is a staggering 11.8 percent. But in the midwestern battlegrounds, the pattern seems clear.

It’s hard to know just how responsible these unemployment rates are for Obama’s seeming lead in these states. Experts differ on the degree to which national economic conditions, as opposed to local ones, drive voter decision-making. And the unemployment rates in these states are still terrible. But the political scientists do agree that perceptions of the direction of the economy are a major factor. If that’s true, then the lower-than-average-and-falling midwestern unemployment rates could help explain why Obama’s lead in those battlegrounds seems to be holding up.


UPDATE: Another anomaly should be noted: The unemployment rate in Michigan is 9.3, significantly higher than the national average (though Michigan isn’t a true toss up state).