Politics and monthly jobs reports are inextricably linked and trapped in
a vicious cycle.
Depending on what Friday's Ohio unemployment rate shows -- it was at 7.1 percent in March -- either Republicans will hail Gov. John Kasich for an improving economy or Democrats will blame him for a needle heading in the wrong direction. The same holds true for how many jobs the state will have added or dropped.
The reaction to Friday's report will either be misleading, oversimplified, or otherwise incomplete, according to economists and political operatives who spoke with The Dispatch.
"There's hype and spin, and then there's the truth," said Ken Mayland, the head of ClearView Economics, an economic-forecasting firm in suburban Cleveland. "There is no one thing that can succinctly define how the economy is doing."
Nearly every month, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau conduct separate surveys nationwide. One covers about 60,000 households to determine who is working and who is looking for work to calculate the unemployment rate. The other is of about 145,000 businesses and counts how many jobs were added and in which sectors.
Two weeks after the national results are released, Ohio's numbers come out -- based on surveys of about 18,000 Ohio employers and 2,000 households.
Of the two surveys, local economist Bill LaFayette puts more stock in the business survey because it's more straightforward than the unemployment numbers.
A lower unemployment rate doesn't necessarily signal a good thing, especially when the number of people looking for work shrinks. But LaFayette, owner of consulting firm Regionomics, also cautions to be careful with the monthly business surveys, mainly because the numbers change.
For example, Kasich defeated Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland in 2010 on a fairly simple message: More than 400,000 jobs had been lost under Strickland's tenure. The revised numbers from that period now show that Ohio dropped about 379,000 jobs under Strickland. It's still a large number, but the point is, the figures fluctuate.
Candidates can more easily shout out an unemployment rate that supports their case than explain the current "U-6" rate -- or percentage of the labor force who are jobless and looking for work, are discouraged from looking, or have part-time jobs but want full-time work.
Those kinds of statistics and others, like the average amount of hours people worked each week (one of Mayland's favorite stats), are all in national monthly reports. Some data subsets aren't as complete in state reports, but they still go beyond simple unemployment and jobs numbers.
"Simply going out on a monthly basis and screaming that the unemployment rate went up or that it went down is not a real effective way to educate the American people about the actual health of the economy," said Scott Jennings, who lived this troubled marriage between elections and jobs numbers last year directing Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign in Ohio.
"The sad part is, we take the unemployment rate and if it's good for you, you go out and talk about how great it is, and if it's bad for you, you go out and make some argument about how the underlying statistics are bad. What we lose in that back and forth is a real, honest debate about the actual health of the economy."
Still, 18 months before Ohio's next gubernatorial election, both Republicans and Democrats defend the use of the numbers.
"Job-creation numbers is a metric that all 50 states and the White House use, and the people who would claim that it is a bad yardstick are those who don't like the fact that it measures the hundreds of thousands of jobs that were lost during the previous administration," said Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Kasich, citing the 115,000 jobs added under Kasich as a comparison.
Democrats have pilloried Kasich over a bad March report. After Ohio gained about 16,000 jobs in February, the report released last month showed a drop of more than 20,000 jobs.
"There are a few indicators to determine Ohio's economic strengths or weaknesses, like the jobs report last month that Ohio lost 20,400 jobs, worse than any other state in the nation," said Meredith Tucker, spokeswoman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald.
It's also becoming more common for the same report to be both heralded and vilified by opposing politicians. On the final Friday before Election Day last year, a national jobs report was released while both President Barack Obama and Romney were campaigning in Ohio.
Obama championed the report because it showed 171,000 jobs were added in October. Romney blasted the report because unemployment ticked up, from 7.8 percent to 7.9 percent.
"It's rare that headlines will capture all the details of the data," said Ben LaBolt, national press secretary for the Obama campaign. "Ultimately what we found was that Americans really judge their economic circumstances in a broader context."
(c)2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
Visit The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) at www.dispatch.com
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