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High jobless rates in Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania point to problem for Trump

Key swing states vital to President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE’s reelection effort are suffering through unemployment rates higher than the national rate, something that could be a factor in the home stretch of the presidential campaign. 

The unemployment rates in Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona, three of the tightest contests in the country, stood at 13.7 percent, 11.3 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively, in July, the most recent month recorded. The national jobless rate in July was 10.2 percent, and it fell to 8.4 percent in August.

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“Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona all stand out as states that are seeing particularly high unemployment right now,” said Julia Wolfe, an economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

Polls show Trump and Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Brad Pitt narrates Biden ad airing during World Series MORE in a razor-tight race for Florida’s 29 electoral votes. If Trump loses Florida, he would likely need to win virtually all of the other big swing states up for grabs. 

No Republican presidential candidate has lost Arizona since 1996, but Biden is ahead in polls. If Trump loses Arizona, even a win in Florida likely would leave him needing to win two of the three big states he took from Democrats in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. 

Michigan and Wisconsin had jobless rates in July of 8.7 percent and 7 percent, respectively, lower than the national rate. Trump is trailing in the RealClearPolitics average of polls in both states.

Trump has made the economy a centerpiece of his reelection campaign and argues he remains the best candidate to preside over the recovery.

Charlie Gerow, a Republican political strategist based in Pennsylvania, argued that voters were more likely to look at the economic data before the pandemic when weighing who to cast ballots for.

“I think the question in voters’ minds is, who can bring us back? And I think Trump can make a strong case: ‘Look what I did,’ ” Gerow said.

Trump and his campaign claim Biden would usher in a stock market crash and implement policies that would hinder the recovery. The president has also sought to blame Democrats for inaction on the next coronavirus relief package.

Democrats blame Trump for allowing $600 in additional weekly unemployment benefits to lapse in July and say his executive order to temporarily restore them at half the level was inadequate.

Polls show Trump is more trusted than Biden when it comes to handling the economy, though some recent national polls have suggested that Trump’s advantage may be waning.

An NBC News-Marist poll released earlier in September found that likely voters in Pennsylvania believe Trump would better handle the economy than Biden, 51 percent to 41 percent. But the same survey found Biden leading Trump 53 percent to 44 percent overall.

A CBS News battleground tracker poll released earlier this month found that 45 percent of voters in Arizona say Trump would do a better job handling the economy, while 44 percent prefer Biden. Biden leads Trump 47 percent to 44 percent among Arizona voters overall, an advantage that is within the margin of error.

Chuck Coughlin, a Republican strategist based in Phoenix, said that the pandemic has hurt one of Trump’s core reelection arguments and allowed Biden to be competitive.

“I don’t think any of us thought the Democratic candidate would be competitive with the economy humming along the way it was, especially in Arizona,” Coughlin said.

“It is a significant issue as the economy begins to reengage,” he continued. “I think that’s why the president has been so insistent on opening, on getting people back to work, for a perception that it is happening on his watch. That’s a greater tool for him if the economy is perceived as recovering.”

It’s unclear how the high jobless numbers will affect the presidential vote in a year dominated by the coronavirus, which continues to hamper daily life throughout the country.

“You can’t separate the economy’s performance from the performance of keeping COVID-19 infection rates and death rates down. Clearly, they’re related,” said Ross DeVol, president and CEO of Heartland Forward.

Polls have shown voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, which is at the root of the economic downturn. New York Times data found that must-win Florida had the second highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita, about 2.5-times higher than Pennsylvania or Michigan.  

Another factor is how states relayed benefits to the unemployed. Florida struggled to deliver checks to the millions of people who became unemployed overnight as the nation was locked down.

“Florida is clearly one of the worst performing states in terms of getting out benefits during this recession,” said Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, during a Bipartisan Policy Center event Wednesday.

“It failed spectacularly. The computer system completely crashed. People had to go get paper applications and stand in line for them,” she added.

Michigan, in contrast, was quick to get benefits paid out to the unemployed, helping soften the economic blow more quickly.

Republicans say that Trump’s best course of action is to argue that he presided over a strong economy and can bring it back to strength.

But recent data suggests the recovery is moving along slowly. 

A Wednesday report from Yelp found that 60 percent of businesses that closed their doors since March were shuttered for good. The Census Bureau said retail sales, a key driver of the economy, grew below expectations at just 0.6 percent in August.