President Obama’s national approval numbers have risen steadily with the brightening economy, but he may be vulnerable in the swing states that will be critical in determining the outcome of the 2012 election.
Obama will likely need to win about half of the electoral votes supplied by Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Hampshire if he is to secure a second term.
The president won all of those states in 2008, but some of those 12 have been among the hardest hit by the recession.
While Obama has recently pulled away from the GOP field in hypothetical battleground state matchups, a lot can change once Republicans decide on a candidate, and if the economy is the driving factor in those states, as it is nationally, then the president will have his work cut out for him.
“I think most swing state voters at the moment are struggling with big question, which is what is America going to do in the next decade,” said Lanae Erickson, director of social policy and politics at center-left think tank Third Way. “They’re filled with anxiety about where America is going and how we’re going to compete in the global economy. When you feel that way, it’s very difficult to feel positively about the president.”
In one-third of the swing states – Michigan, Florida, North Carolina and Nevada – the unemployment rate at the end of 2011 was well above the national average.
Nevada had the highest unemployment rate in the country at 12.6 percent, North Carolina (which Obama won by a slim .4 percent in 2008) and Florida were tied for the 45th worst at 9.9 percent, and Michigan had the 41st worst at 9.1 percent.
While Michigan has swung reliably Democratic in recent presidential elections, the other three states could be tougher turf for Obama.
The Real Clear Politics average of polls in Florida, for example, shows Obama with a 0.4 percent advantage over Romney, a narrower margin than in recent national polls, and the latest survey of North Carolina from Public Policy Polling shows the president with only a one point lead over Romney.
According to a report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, jobs are not likely to return to those economies – or to the critical battleground state of Ohio - anytime soon.
The report predicts that metro areas in Nevada, Michigan, Florida and Ohio will have some of the longest recovery times in the country, with jobs not estimated to return to pre-recession levels until 2016 or beyond.
And it’s not just unemployment dragging on these economies. A January PPP survey found that Nevada, Florida and Michigan were also hardest hit by the housing crisis, posting price declines of 41 percent, 31 percent and 21 percent respectively.
Obama also looks vulnerable in the Rust Belt states of Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. While those states have unemployment rates below the national average, a Fox News poll released on Thursday shows that the president doesn’t have the same approval rating in those states as he does nationally.
Only 41 percent in those four Rust Belt states say they approve of the job the president is doing, while 47 percent say they disapprove.
“Those states that are heavily involved in manufacturing are deeply pessimistic right now, and not just about they’re personal finances,” Erickson said. “Most of the folks we talk to are actually more concerned about the nation’s future as it relates to the global economy. Their biggest fear is for their own children, that they’ll be swimming upstream against America’s decline.”
Still, there are bright spots for the president in these swing states. New Hampshire, Virginia and New Mexico have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is popular at home and a rising star in the Democratic Party.
“In places like Colorado, and even North Carolina, where they’re seeing new technologies and new industries coming in, voters seem to be a lot more optimistic,” Erickson said. “It helps them see that we’re on the right track and we may have turned the corner and that the president has shown leadership.”
Virginia, with its 6.2 percent unemployment, is a state Republicans need to claw back in the presidential race, but a Quinnipiac poll this week shows Obama with a 3.7 percent lead.
And things are lining up even better for Obama in New Mexico, where a Rasmussen poll released on Thursday showed him with a 19-point lead over Romney.
Still, while the president may be able to convince a majority of voters nationally that he’s got the country on the path to economic recovery, he’ll need to convince voters in these 12 states that they’ll be coming along for the ride.