WASHINGTON Jobless rates in all but two U.S. states dropped in April from a year before, and were sharply lower in battleground states that could decide November's presidential contest.
Sharp drops in unemployment rates were registered in Florida, Nevada and Ohio, while joblessness in Michigan, a key state in the election four years ago, hit its lowest since 2008.
According to Labor Department data released on Friday, New York's rate rose to 8.5 percent, marking the third month in a row in which New York was the sole state with an unemployment rate higher than the year before. Rhode Island's was the same as in April 2011, 11.2 percent.
Compared with March, jobless rates fell in 37 states and the District of Columbia, rose in five, and were unchanged in eight states. North Dakota again notched the lowest rate, 3 percent.
Ahead of an election often regarded a referendum on President Barack Obama's job creation efforts, the country is closely watching the economic performance of so-called "swing states."
In the unique U.S. electoral system in which states cast votes for President, a candidate must collect 270 electoral votes to win. Ten states in particular are considered toss-ups in this election, representing 130 electoral votes.
In swing state Ohio, the jobless rate in April 2012 was 7.4 percent, more than a full percentage point below the 8.8 percent of April 2011.
A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month showed Obama in a virtual tie with presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney in Ohio and in Florida, where 29 electoral votes are at stake.
Florida's jobless rate in April dropped nearly two points from a year before, to 8.7 percent from 10.6 percent.
And while Nevada continued to hold the highest jobless rate in the nation last month, at 11.7 percent, the rate was much lower than the 13.6 percent in April 2011.
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.
MICHIGAN JOBLESS RATE LOWEST SINCE JULY 2008
The national jobless rate began edging down at the beginning of 2012, four years after Obama took the oath of office, but economists, politicians and taxpayers are worried the improvements were sputtering out. Analysts polled by Reuters expect a Labor Department report due out soon to show the jobless rate did not budge in May, and remained at April's 8.1 percent.
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. In April, its jobless rate reached the lowest level since July 2008, 8.2 percent, as payrolls in the state gained 91,000 jobs over the year.
"The first four months of 2012 have been positive for Michigan's labor market," said Rick Waclawek, director of the state's labor bureau, in a statement. "Early 2012 has been marked by monthly employment gains and stable labor force levels."
In terms of payrolls, employment increased in 32 states and the District of Columbia in April from the month before and fell in 18 states. Indiana had the largest gains, 13,200 jobs, while Maryland had the biggest drop, 6,000.
States where the jobless rate has stopped climbing currently face the end of a federal aid program for the long-term unemployed. In Connecticut, where the rate fell to 7.7 percent from 9 percent in April 2011, Governor Dannel Malloy is planning to target social services at those losing extended benefits.
""While a lower unemployment rate is good news overall, for residents in jeopardy of losing their benefits, we have a clear obligation to make sure they are aware of the assistance that's available," said Malloy in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, Karen Pierog in Chicago and Joan Gralla in New York; Editing Tiziana Barghini and Chizu Nomiyama)