While a 7.8 percent unemployment rate is hardly a positive a month before Election Day, the slightly downward trend in the overall percentage may very well be a good omen for President Obama if history is any guide.
The White House jumped on the latest figures from the Labor Department on Friday. At a rally in Virginia, the president touted the news telling supporters “the unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level since I took office.” Mitt Romney, meanwhile, downplayed the report in a release from his campaign saying “the results of President Obama’s failed policies are staggering.”
Conspiracy theories on the numbers aside, the bad news for Obama is that the 7.8 percent unemployment rate in September is easily the highest of any president who has won reelection since 1980. In fact, the number is higher than the unemployment rate at the same point during the reelection years of Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush.President Year Unemployment Result Jimmy Carter 1980 7.5 Lost Ronald Reagan 1984 7.3 Won George H.W. Bush 1992 7.3 Lost Bill Clinton 1996 5.2 Won George W. Bush 2004 5.5 Won Barack Obama 2012 7.8 ?
*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
The possible upshot for the president? The unemployment rate is lower now than it was in January of this year—neither Carter nor George H.W. Bush could have said the same at this point in their reelection years.
Jimmy Carter: From January to July of 1980, the unemployment rate climbed from 6.3 to 7.8 percent. By October, that number had dropped to 7.5 percent—hardly a win for the president, who lost reelection to Ronald Reagan by nearly 10 points that November.
Ronald Reagan: He fared much better in 1984. From January to June of election year unemployment dropped from 8.0 to 7.2 percent. The public was pleased with the 7.3 percent rate in October, and Reagan walloped Walter Mondale 58.5 percent to 40.6 percent of the vote on Election Day.
George H.W. Bush: Facing a much harder time than his predecessor, unemployment rose from 7.3 to 7.8 percent between January and June of 1992 and, though that number was back down to 7.3 by October, it simply wasn’t enough. Bush lost to Bill Clinton by more than 5 percentage points.
Bill Clinton: In January of Clinton’s reelection year, unemployment was at 5.6 percent. By October it was at 5.2 percent, despite having risen from an August low of 5.1 percent. By November, Clinton cruised to victory over Republican Bob Dole.
George W. Bush: The unemployment rate started Bush’s reelection year at 5.7 percent, hit a high of 5.8 percent in March and eventually dropped to 5.5 percent in October. In the end, Bush narrowly defeated Democrat John Kerry.