A Tale of Two Economies: Mitt Romney vs. Republican Governors

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The great recession has left the state of Ohio battered and bruised–and Mitt Romney would have you believe it’s Barack Obama’s fault. Writing in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer on May 4, Romney advised Ohioans that the President has delivered them “paltry results,” and that their state is in need of “a fundamental change in direction.”

But just three days earlier, the state’s Republican governor, John Kasich, was telling a different story. “I’m very comfortable with the [economic] trend we have in our state,” Kasich said. “Our unemployment has dropped I think more than most other states.” (He thinks right.) “We’re [moving] in the right direction,” Kasich said.

Obama would have you believe Kasich’s version of events. The President’s campaign argues that the economy, while still troubled, is clearly and steadily improving. Obama’s election may depend on whether he can successfully make that sale. And he has gained some unlikely support: Republican governors in critical swing states like Ohio.

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For Obama, it’s particularly helpful that the economy is brightening fastest in some of the most important battleground states that will determine this fall’s election. Consider three states that were the subject of new poll data released by NBC and Marist late last week: Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. Barack Obama leads Romney in all three. (By 48%-44% in both Florida and Virginia and by 48%-42% in Ohio.) In each state, Obama’s margin is wider than it is in the country as a whole, as measured in two different national polling averages which show him a less than two percent edge.

It’s impossible to pinpoint why Obama might be performing better in these states. But one reason might be the help he’s getting from their local economies–and the governors, all of them Republican, with an incentive to tell an economic story closer to Obama’s than to Romney’s.

Romney’s message, of course, is that the economy still stinks, and that the recent job growth Obama brags about is nothing to celebrate. When the last round of so-so jobs numbers arrived on May 4, Romney pronounced them “terrible” and “very disappointing.” “We seem to be slowing down, not speeding up,” he said. “This is way, way, way off from what should happen in a normal recovery.”

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But Kasich and his counterparts in Florida and Virginia are singing a different tune–and not without reason. At 7.4%, Ohio’s unemployment rate is more about a half-point better than the national average of 8.1 percent; more importantly, it’s improving about twice as fast as the national number. Virginia has a relatively stellar 5.6 percent rate; that’s better than Romney’s target for the nation at the end of his first term. With an 8.7 percent jobless rate Florida is definitely still hurting. But it’s come a long way from its crisis-level 11.2 percent rate of just a year ago. Like Ohio’s, Florida’s unemployment rate is falling twice as rapidly as the nation’s.

And guess who’s first in line to brag about these results, party loyalty be damned? “We’re alive again!” Kasich said in his January State of the State address. “We’re out of the ditch. We’re growing. It’s happening in our state.” In Virginia, meanwhile, governor Bob McDonnell’s political action committee released a new ad last month “celebrat[ing] Virginia’s economic recovery,” as his website explains. The site also boasts that the state’s unemployment rate “has plunged 23% since January 2010.” In Florida, governor Rick Scott bragged earlier this month, after a miniscule 0.3 percent uptick in his state’s unemployment rate, that “Florida’s jobless rate moved to its lowest point in more than three years and is a clear sign we are moving Florida in a direction that gives businesses and job creators the confidence they need to grow and expand.”

It’s safe to say that Eric Fehrnstrom isn’t writing the talking points for these governors. But while all of them support Romney, they also have their own political self-preservation in mind. And they know that it’s not just the President whom voters will blame for a rotten economy.

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This quirky dynamic extends through several other battleground states. Nevada’s Republican governor says his bloodied state is “on the move again.” In Michigan, where unemployment has plummeted from more than 14 percent in 2009 to 8.3 percent, Republican Governor Rick Snyder declares that “much has been done,” adding: “the key is to keep this going.” And Wisconsin’s Republican Governor, Scott Walker may survive a June 5 recall vote after relentless boasting about the state’s  slightly sunnier economic performance. (In a bit of turnabout, Democrats are complaining that the Republican is exaggerates the good news.)

Not that these governors are affording Obama any credit. They say their states could be doing even better under a Republican President. But the more they feel compelled, for reasons of political self-interest, to echo the White House’s tale of  economic progress, the less likely they are to get one.

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