WASHINGTON—Employers added 114,000 jobs to the US economy last month, dropping the unemployment rate to 7.8 percent, a bigger drop than expected and bringing the crucial benchmark to its lowest level since Jan 2009.

The jobs report is being closely watched, coming about a month before the election and 36 hours after the first presidential debate. The report could provide a lift to President Obama, who has been trying to convey to voters that his economic policies are working.

It could also make Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s case more difficult, although one reason the unemployment rate has been dropping is because some have left the work force, after finding jobs too hard to come by. The rate is also still higher than any president has been reelected under since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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But the unemployment rate—which was 8.1 percent in August—has not been below 8 percent in three years, since before Obama took office.

“This is not what a real recovery looks like,” Romney said in a statement after the report came out. “If not for all the people who have simply dropped out of the labor force, the real unemployment rate would be closer to 11 percent.”

Romney noted the number of Americans still looking for work, living in poverty, or dependent on food stamps.

“The choice for this election is clear,” he said. “Under President Obama, we’ll get another four years like the last four years. If I’m elected, we will have a real recovery with pro-growth policies that will create 12 million new jobs and rising incomes for everyone.”

Economists have projected that 12 million new jobs will be added over the next four years if the economy stays on its current trajectory

The preliminary jobs figures for July and August were also revised upward, with 181,000 jobs added in July, 40,000 more than initial estimates, and 142,000 added in August, 46,000 more than initial estimates.

There is one more jobs report before the election, coming just four days before voters head to the polls Nov. 6.