From the day in June 2011 when he announced his White House bid to the night last week when he delivered a commanding debate performance, Mitt Romney has slammed President Obama for a national unemployment rate that remained above 8 percent for 43 straight months.
But with Friday’s news that unemployment has dipped to 7.8 percent, the Republican nominee has been forced to modify an attack he has levied countless times.
“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 said in a statement issued shortly after the Bureau of Labor Statistics published its latest jobs report.
“We created fewer jobs in September than in August, and fewer jobs in August than in July,” Romney added. In the few days since, Romney and his aides have made similar remarks on the trail and in interviews, signaling that these are the campaign’s new economic talking points.
The evaporation of one oft-repeated number does not invalidate Romney’s overall message—that the recovery has been inadequate and that he could accelerate growth, if elected—but it does highlight some potential problems for the home stretch of the campaign.
As the economy shows slow but steady signs of improvement, Romney’s argument that Obama’s policies are failing could become less convincing, particularly in those swing states where the unemployment rate is lower than the national average.
If Romney works too aggressively to convince voters that they should not be encouraged by the trickle of good news, he risks muddying his attempt to offer a positive vision of the future or, worse, being accused of wishing ill on the economy for political gain.
And Romney must now execute an economic critique that lost some of its pithiness overnight when the 8 percent unemployment streak was broken.
“You can talk about the size of the labor force but then you have to explain to voters what it means,” said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “Eight percent stood on its own.”
In New Hampshire, a key battleground, the unemployment rate is 5.7 percent, and Obama has taken a lead in polls. Romney had better news Monday from a national poll by Pew Research Center, which showed him leading Obama by 49 to 45 percent among likely voters.
“What we’ve been seeing [in New Hampshire] is Romney’s been losing ground over the last six months,” Smith said. “Unemployment’s been low throughout that stretch, and I think that’s one of the reasons why Obama’s been doing well.”
In a UNH survey published last Monday, before the new jobs report, 49 percent of Granite State voters said they believe the country is on the right track; 47 percent said they think the nation is on the wrong track. Two months earlier, only 38 percent said right track while 57 percent said wrong track.
“It’s harder to get people angry if they stop seeing something to be angry about,” Smith said. “So those marginal Democrats—people who lean Democrat but aren’t hard-core and would consider Romney—if those people think things are not that bad, they will not go out and vote for Romney.”
In Iowa, another swing state, the unemployment rate is 5.5 percent, sixth lowest in the country. Cary R. Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said the latest jobs report likely would have been more impactful if Obama had not fared poorly in his first debate with Romney two days earlier, but he added that many Iowans were already beginning to feel more optimistic about their economic prospects.
“I think people might be a little less receptive to Romney’s pitch than they would be in other states,” Covington said. “I think they’ll be more open to Obama’s claims about the economy moving in the right direction.”
Republican strategists insist the economy remains so weak that Romney’s message still rings true, especially after his strong showing in the debate.
“I don’t think the jobs report fundamentally changed the race. I do think the debate fundamentally changed the race,” said Mark McKinnon, an adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “I think voters are giving Romney either a first or second look, and they are liking what they are seeing right now. Most voters still have deep concerns about the economy and don’t think the president’s policies have done enough to get things moving fast enough.”
Ron Bonjean, who worked as a spokesman for former Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, contended Romney’s new points of emphasis—like 11 percent unemployment, if not for a shrinking labor force—are easy for voters to digest.
“It still resonates. People understand what that means,” Bonjean said. “I’m not sure it’s the numbers that really matter. It’s the psychology that the economy isn’t doing well.”
Ron Christie, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, said the Romney campaign should work to attach credit for low unemployment rates to Republican governors like Virginia’s Bob McDonnell and Ohio’s John Kasich. Shrinking unemployment does not necessarily aid the president, Christie said.
But in states like New Hampshire, where the low rate does appear to be helping Obama, “what are you left with?” asked Thomas J. Basile, another former Bush adviser.
“Well, you can still say the president ran on cutting the deficit, cutting the debt, and he hasn’t kept those promises,” Basile said, answering his own question. “Those systemic problems still resonate in those states.”Callum Borchers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.