TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Mitt Romney is fighting for votes in economically struggling Michigan by pointing to his job-creation record in Massachusetts for proof he can jump-start bad economies — but the drop in unemployment during his time as governor may be a result more of willing workers fleeing the state than from his own ability to spawn jobs.
In fact, Massachusetts had the weakest employment growth of any state from 2002 to 2006 except for Mississippi and Louisiana, which suffered the brunt of Hurricane Katrina, and Michigan itself, which was buffeted by the auto industry’s woes.
“The fact the unemployment rate went down had nothing to do with the policies of his administration,” said professor Andrew M. Sum, director of the center for labor market studies at Northeastern University in Boston. “We had one of the three worst job-creation rates in the country under his administration. The unemployment rate largely went down for one reason, because people withdrew from the labor force and left the state.”
Michigan Republicans go to the polls Tuesday along with voters in Arizona, and the economy remains at the top of the list of issues for Republican voters nationwide.
Mr. Romney in particular is basing his campaign appeal on his message of economic competence, highlighting his time at the helm of Bain Capital and the one term he served as governor as critical experience that will translate over to the White House.
“When I came in as governor, we were in a real free fall,” Mr. Romney said in a December debate. “We were losing jobs every month. We had a budget that was way out of balance. So I came into office, we went to work as a team, and we were able to turn around the job losses. And at the end of four years, we had our unemployment rate down to 4.7 percent.”
Mr. Sum said he had no bones with Mr. Romney touting the role he played at Bain Capital creating jobs — more than 100,000 by the ex-governor’s own count.
But Mr. Sum said Massachusetts’ unemployment rate fell mostly because people looking for work moved out of the state, and thus were no longer counted on the Massachusetts rolls.
In all, he said 222,000 more residents left Massachusetts than moved there during Mr. Romney’s time in office, making the state “a national leader in exporting our population.”
The Romney campaign disputed the employment numbers, saying that when measured on a month-to-month basis from December 2002 to December 2006, both the labor force and the number of employed actually grew.
Indeed, the labor force — measured by those with jobs or those who were actively seeking employment — grew 0.5 percent. But that was still the third-worst rate in the country, behind Louisiana and Mississippi, both of which shed workers after Hurricane Katrina.
And Massachusetts’ employment rate — the percentage of the population actually in jobs — did grow 1.5 percent, but that was fourth-worst in the country, behind the two Hurricane Katrina states and Michigan.
The Republican has said that he would have been able to do more, but his hands were tied by the Democrat-controlled legislature, which had no appetite for his conservative-fueled policies.
Mr. Romney renewed his economic pitch to Michigan voters Friday, laying out a plan to cut taxes and slowly increase the eligibility age for entitlements, which he said would balance the budget and boost jobs nationally.
Polls show the ex-governor sitting atop a solid lead in Arizona and running neck-and-neck here in Michigan with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
“If we pursue the policies I’ve just described, you’re going to see a Michigan with rising home values. Your kids will come out of college and find jobs that are consistent with their skills. Businesses will come here because of your unparalleled workforce. And Michigan will once again be known as an engine of innovation,” he said.
Mr. Romney’s unemployment-rate claims have largely gone untested here in the run-up to election day, but he has faced some blowback from the United Auto Workers (UAW) over his opposition to the auto bailouts that some now credit with helping General Motors to post record profits this month.
Michael Heaney, University of Michigan political scientist, said that most voters are smart enough to realize that politicians, including Mr. Romney and President Obama, tend to embellish their records, while stretching the truth about how much control they have over the economy.
“The whole idea that Romney was responsible for good or bad things in Massachusetts is fallacious — just as it is fallacious that any executive is responsible for the ups and downs of the economy,” Mr. Heaney said. “I think people sort of tune out of the debate at that level. Romney is still going to get points with the Republican grass roots for being a businessman.”
“Romney still wins among the people who say they would kind of like a businessman to be president, even if he is not really responsible for economic growth in Massachusetts, because nobody really is, especially at the state level,” he said.