Feb. jobless rates drop in US states, swing states perk up

March 30 Fri Mar 30, 2012 12:59pm EDT

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March 30 (Reuters) - Unemployment rates dropped in almost all U.S. states in February, with many of those considered up for grabs in the 2012 presidential election registering the biggest improvement, data released on Friday showed.

The Labor Department said that in 29 states the rates dropped from the month before and in 13 states there was no movement.

Compared with a year earlier, 49 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia had lower jobless rates. The rate rose only in New York, to 8.5 percent from 8.1 percent in February 2011.

In about 10 states the fight between President Barack Obama and the eventual Republican nominee is expected to be the most fierce, during an election widely considered a referendum on Obama's job creation efforts.

The 10 swing states represent 130 electoral votes. A candidate must collect 270 of the votes to win.

Coming into office at the height of the financial crisis, Obama quickly bailed out banks and automobile companies and enacted a package of spending and tax measures intended to create thousands of jobs.

Only recently has the national unemployment rate edged down, however, reaching a three-year low of 8.3 percent in February and January. The Labor Department will release data for March on April 6.

Ohio, a swing state that proved crucial to President George W. Bush's win in 2004, led the nation in job creation in February, adding 28,300 jobs to its payrolls. Meanwhile, the state's unemployment rate fell to 7.6 percent, the lowest for the manufacturing and agriculture-heavy state since November 2008.

The fight over job creation could be particularly tough in Nevada, which flourished during the housing boom and was therefore vulnerable to the real estate collapse. The recession also kept many Americans away from entertainment cities Las Vegas and Reno.

Nevada has had the highest unemployment rate in the nation for more than a year and a half and in February it lost the most jobs of any state, 12,800, and had the largest over-the-month percentage decline in employment, 1.1 percent.

Still, along with Mississippi, it experienced the largest decline in its unemployment rate in February. The rate dropped to 12.3 percent, the lowest since August 2009, and well below the record high of 14 percent it hit in October 2010, nearly two years after Obama won the election.

Over the three years Obama has been in office, North Carolina and Florida also hit record high jobless rates, both reaching 11.4 percent two years ago.

But in February North Carolina's rate dropped to 9.9 percent in the third straight month of decreases. That was the lowest level in three years, and the first time the state's unemployment rate was below double-digits since February 2009.

The state gained 8,300 jobs over the month, primarily in financial activities and business services, education and health, leisure, and government. Over the past two years the state has added 112,000 jobs, said its Department of Commerce Deputy Secretary, Dale Carroll.

Florida also had one of the biggest drops in its jobless rate, which fell to 9.4 percent from 9.6 percent the month before, in the eighth consecutive decline. The last time the rate was lower was February 2009.

Its governor, Rick Scott, is a Republican who came to power as part of a wave of conservative anger that pushed Democrats out of office across the nation in 2010. But the state's 29 electoral votes, the most of any swing state's, are still considered up for grabs in 2012.

Four years ago, the story of how politics and economics connect was centered in one state: Michigan.

Throughout the 2008 primaries and general election, it had the highest jobless rate in the nation, as massive financial struggles at the three leading U.S. automobile companies took a heavy toll on factory jobs. For more than a year, the state has experienced a radical turnaround.

Its jobless rate fell to 8.8 percent in February from 9 percent in January. It also recorded the largest fall in its unemployment rate from a year ago in the country - in February 2011 its jobless rate was 10.7 percent.

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