To win reelection, President Obama needs to match his 2008 performance in four swing states: Florida, Nevada, Michigan and North Carolina. Unfortunately, as Sara Murray reports for the Wall Street Journal, those are also states with levels of unemployment that rise far above the national average. And while high unemployment isn't directly correlated to outcomes in presidential elections, it certainly doesn't help. Here is a chart to illustrate the point:
Calling Michigan a swing state strains the definition; Democrats have won the state in five of the last eight presidential elections, with an average vote total of 51.04 percent. It's in the same class as a state like Missouri, which has low margins for the winning candidate -- John McCain carried the state with 49.7 percent in 2008, George W. Bush carried it with 53.4 percent in 2004 and 50.4 percent in 2000 -- but consistently votes for a single party; Missourians have supported the Republican Party in six of the last eight presidential elections.
For the actual swing states, Florida, Nevada and North Carolina, the effect of unemployment on Obama's reelection chances depends on your view of voter behavior. If voters have a uniformly negative reaction to high unemployment, i.e. "throw the bums out!", then Obama has a problem. On the other hand, if the reaction to high unemployment varies from demographic to demographic, then the situation changes. For example, despite their depression-level unemployment rate of 16.2 percent, African Americans support President Obama in huge numbers, with an approval rating of 89 percent. Likewise, his approval with other core demographics, Latinos and young people, is higher than it should be given their relatively high unemployment rates.
It would be best if everyone benefitted from a better economy, but in terms of politics, Obama doesn't actually need to improve economic conditions for all voters as much as he needs to improve them for those with a slight disposition to vote against him: middle-aged white people. If Obama breaks even with those voters while maintaining high levels of support among his base -- blacks, Latinos and young people -- he can win.
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