WASHINGTON — The government's monthly jobs report has become Washington's most anticipated and studied economic indicator, pounced upon by politicians, economists and journalists for snap judgments as the presidential election nears. But in the real world, most everybody else just looks around and figures things out for themselves.
Is that steel plant closing? Are Ford or General Motors rehiring? How much are those groceries? What's a full tank of gas going to run me? How much is our house worth? How's that 401(k) doing? When will I find another job? Will our college-educated daughter ever find work and move out.
These are the kinds of questions economists and pollsters say are on people's minds more than government statistics.
"People are not looking at these government reports to decide how the economy is doing, or how well they or their neighbors are doing. They know from their own daily experience," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said.
"The flow of economic news matters," but only to supplement what their own eyes tell them, Mellman added.
Given that the unemployment rate hasn't dipped below 8 percent since the first month of President Barack Obama's term, Republicans are seizing on the new jobs numbers that come out the first Friday of each month. The GOP is using the fresh figures to batter the president and revive the question famously asked by Ronald Reagan in 1980: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
"We're going in the wrong direction," GOP nominee Mitt Romney contends. "This president ... doesn't understand what it takes to make our economy work. I do."
The latest numbers show a jobless rate of 8.1 percent for August, with monthly job creation an anemic 96,000, not enough to even match the growth in working-age population. It's doubtful the picture will improve much by Election Day. No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s has won re-election with an unemployment so high.
Unemployment for Roosevelt was then about 15 percent, but falling from around 25 percent. Momentum and direction do count for something.
The economy has lost a staggering 8.8 million jobs in the downturn and has clawed back only 4.1 million. Just two jobs reports remain before the Nov. 6 election — on Oct. 5 and Nov. 2 — and they could be crucial to the outcome.
"To the average person, the economy is a very personal thing," says White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. He said people look at different factors.
But which ones?
"Jobs is still No. 1," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "It's at the top of everyone's list. People might not know the government jobs number that comes out each month, but they see it every day in their lives." A close second right now, Zandi says, are gasoline prices, with the national average grazing $4 a gallon. But otherwise, inflation is generally muted.
Dan Connaghan, 69, a retiree in Traverse City, Mich., who supports Romney, agrees. "Unemployment figures don't have an effect on my vote." He questions their accuracy. But he also says there's one thing he knows for sure: "We're worse off than we were four years ago. No doubt about it."
Pollster Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, said the government numbers "give people a basis of confirmation of their own sense about the economic issues that are the most important to them. And right now, it's jobs."
Only 10 percent of the people in a recent Pew survey consider today's economic conditions "excellent" or "good," Kohut said.
To homeowners, the value of their house ranks high. With nearly half the nation's adult population owning stocks and other securities, mostly through 401(k) and similar programs at work or in pension funds, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is paid some heed.
At its Friday close, the Dow marked its highest level since December 2007, the first month of the recession.
Other reports are more ominous.
The government reported this past week that the income of the typical American household has fallen to levels last seen in 1995.
Interest rates are also followed by many. When they're low, as now, it means individuals and businesses with good credit can borrow money at exceptionally low rates.
But there is a down side. For savers and seniors on fixed-income, there are paltry payouts on balances often drawing interest of 1 percent or less. This only adds to anxiety, particularly among baby boomers and other older Americans, especially given the softness in housing prices.
Jabril Shaikh, 27, of Milwaukee, works at a temporary job in the legal department at a JPMorgan Chase bank. He considers himself underemployed and says he works with a lot of lawyers who are deeply in debt but are only temporary workers. "It's really sad and frustrating ... but this is all I can get right now, you know?"
Leaning toward Obama, he said the unemployment rate will be a factor in his vote for president. But he's also taking into account other social issues.
Jonathan Ketcham, an Arizona State University associate professor who studies the link between local and state economies and presidential elections, said that, contrary to what many political operatives believe, voters are actually more influenced in their presidential decision by the national economy than by state or local conditions.
"We found that, going back to 1932, a state's unemployment rate had no ability to predict voting for president," he said. Furthermore, he said, despite the GOP four-year "are you better off" question, "we found that most people only pay attention to the most recent year, not to the past four years."
He said he views this as evidence that "people are rightly holding presidents accountable for the performance of the national economy." If true, that could be an important factor in this year's swing states that will likely determine the election outcome.
They're nearly evenly divided between states with jobless rates lower than the 8.1 percent national average, such as Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, and battleground states with higher rates such as Florida, Colorado, Michigan, North Carolina and Nevada.
Heading into the home stretch, Obama leads Romney in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, according to new post Labor-Day NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls.
"I think that in general, Obama's whole economic plan isn't working. Obviously people have been unemployed for a long time," said Rob Sheehy, 41, of Saukville, Wis., an information technology consultant who generally votes Republican. "I definitely do think it's time for a change and we need to try something else."
Associated Press writers Paul Wiseman and Alan Fram in Washington, Carrie Antlfinger in Wisconsin and John Flesher in Michigan contributed.
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