- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2012

If you are closely following the 2012 presidential race, you have to track the state-by-state jobless numbers, because they will decide who wins.

It wasn’t reported on the network nightly news shows last week, but many states saw their unemployment rates climb, including a few that are pivotal battleground states that could decide who will be our next president.

These numbers are compiled and reported by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and they are just as important - maybe more so - than the campaign polls and what the candidates may be saying on any given day.

You do not get much information about unemployment on the nightly news, except when the monthly job numbers come out. This is irresponsible, because these numbers deal with the desperate, daily struggles of tens of millions of American workers and their families.

BLS says that nonfarm employment fell in 22 states in May. The largest month-to-month decrease in employment was in North Carolina (16,500 workers) followed by Pennsylvania (9,900) and tax-happy Maryland (7,500).

President Obama carried North Carolina by an eyelash (14,000 votes out of 4.3 million) in 2008, but that state is now up for grabs and could deny him its 15 electoral votes and his chances for a second term.

If you were looking for a state unemployment rate that illustrates all that is wrong with the Obama economy and his policies, North Carolina is one of the worst. The jobless rate there is 9.4 percent, the fourth-highest in the nation.

While that could well be enough to shift this state into the GOP’s column and significantly tighten the electoral battle, Pennsylvania’s potential could be decisive. It is usually considered a swing state, even though the Democrats have carried it in the last five elections. Mr. Obama won there by an overwhelming 11 percentage-point margin.

But unemployment is high there - 7.4 percent - with the real jobless rate closer to 9 percent if you count workers who have stopped looking for a job, were forced to work fewer hours, take temporary jobs or low-paying counter work.

The BLS reports that the state lost nearly 10,000 jobs, an ominous sign of Pennsylvania’s weakening job market as well as the economy’s overall continuing decline.

Mitt Romney’s focus on job losses and the economy has made this state a tossup. A Quinnipiac state poll last week showed Mr. Obama declining to just a 6-point lead over his Republican challenger, with a huge undecided vote.

If the economic forecasts are correct that the economy is in for several more months of feeble growth that will push unemployment levels higher, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes would push Mr. Romney into the winner’s column.

Just about all of the economic forecasts are trending in Mr. Romney’s direction as the sluggish economy inexorably moves toward the end-of-the-year fiscal cliff when the Bush tax cuts will expire, unless the administration and Congress cut a budget deal to keep them in place.

Perhaps the most frightening forecast came from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which said the Obama economy was headed for a recession in 2013 if a compromise agreement is not reached.

“It is very, very slow growth, but don’t expect that to change anytime soon,” says Moody’s Analytics economist James Bohnaker. “As we get closer to the election and the so-called ‘fiscal cliff,’ businesses are going to stay pretty conservative in their hiring.”

This is why the most closely watched state-by-state political charts in both the Obama and Romney campaign headquarters are the unemployment rates.

The Obama administration predicted not long after it took office in 2009 that unemployment would be brought down to less than 8 percent. But last month’s state-by-state numbers showed 20 states with effectively 8 percent unemployment or higher.

No president since the Great Depression has won re-election with the national unemployment rate at that level.

What should be clear right now at Mr. Obama’s campaign headquarters and in the West Wing is that they are not going to win this election on his handling of the economy. So the president is playing a zero-sum game by picking issues that appeal to special-interest groups in the hopes of stitching together enough electoral votes to squeak out a narrow victory.

Thus, he talks about lowering interest rates on student loans or reaches out to the Hispanic voter bloc with a politically motivated immigration rules change to keep younger Hispanics, who were brought here by illegal migrant parents, from being deported.

It may help him on the margins, but unemployment may be the bigger issue for many jobless Hispanics. Low voter turnout among this voting bloc may be Mr. Obama’s far bigger problem.

“The U.S. economy flirts with recession,” University of Maryland business economist Peter Morici writes this week.

Jobless claims are climbing, fewer jobs are being created, worker productivity is down, auto sales are off their first-quarter high, and wages are flat, manufacturing orders are down, and Europe’s economy is riddled with debt and skyrocketing unemployment that threatens to ricochet through our economy.

Meantime, Mr. Obama is trying to persuade a recession-weary electorate that “the private sector is doing fine” when its workforce shrank by nearly 4 percent in the last four years and the federal workforce is still growing at a healthy rate.

There is a growing sense across the country that voters are looking for answers to how we can pull ourselves out of this economic mess, and all they are hearing from the president are excuses.

They want a plan to grow our economy, but they’re coming to the conclusion that raising taxes on investors, employers and risk-takers - and borrowing more spending money - are not the answers.

How this all turns out in the end can be predicted by the state unemployment rates. Watch them closely.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.