Michigan is getting a boost from the resurgent auto industry. Above, a 2013… (Bill Pugliano, Getty Images )
Are you better off now than four years ago?
If you live in one of the key swing states, chances are the answer is "yes." And that could prove to be a difference maker in the competitive race for the White House.
Even as the national economy remains stubbornly sluggish, the performance of several hotly contested states has been comparatively bright.
Of the dozen or so swing states in this year's presidential election, half have jobless rates below the national average, including the battlegrounds of Ohio and Virginia.
The factors vary by region and industry. Ohio and Pennsylvania are benefiting from a boom in oil drilling and manufacturing. Michigan is getting a boost from the resurgent auto industry. Virginia has been helped by its steady federal workforce and a high concentration of defense contractors.
"Almost all the swing states are better off than they were two years ago," said Xu Cheng, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics who publishes monthly election forecasts based on the economic performance of the states. "That's the reason why President Obama has the edge over Romney."
A poll released Sept. 26 by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., found Obama leading Romney 53% to 43% in Ohio, a lead that has widened in recent weeks.
The swing-state performance is likely to be a recurrent theme in Wednesday's presidential debate, which will focus heavily on economic issues. Obama will point to pockets of improvement while Mitt Romney will hammer on weakness nationally.
Still, the economy is far from a perfect indicator of how people will vote. Many Americans are more swayed by social beliefs and political ideology than by their own financial interests.
In addition, some experts caution that pocketbook issues may provide less of a boost this year than in the past, given the general infirmity of the national economy and the patchy conditions still afflicting even the better-performing states.
Ohio and its 7.2% jobless rate, for example, look good only in comparison with the 8.1% national figure.
Swing states have "seen significant gains in the last three years but people still see that they're a long way from what they were, and that gets them anxious and impatient," said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. "People have a hard time seeing the glass as half full."
The three most important swing states are Ohio, Virginia and Florida because of their large number of electoral votes.
Although Florida has more electoral votes, the biggest prize may be Ohio.
No Republican has ever claimed the White House without winning the Buckeye State, and it would be extremely difficult for Romney to cobble together the needed 270 electoral votes without Ohio. Even if Romney takes Florida's 29 electoral votes, that could be blunted by losses in Ohio, which has 18, and Virginia, with 13.
That calculus hasn't been lost on Obama, who pushed the federal government's $85-billion bailout of the auto industry, which has a huge presence in Ohio. The state is home to several major car plants as well as a network of auto-parts suppliers.
Obama has appealed to people such as Raye Stansbury. The 39-year-old, who paints cars at the General Motors plant in Lordstown, credits the president with saving her job and breathing life into the previously moribund local economy.
"Some of the people who didn't vote for the president last time say they're going to vote for him this time because things are turning," Stansbury said of friends in her neighborhood. "They feel the economy isn't where they want it to be, but it's headed in the right direction."
Obama has also been lucky. Ohio has benefited from a recovering U.S. manufacturing base and a boom in shale-oil production made possible by new "fracking" technology.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich has downplayed the president's role. The Republican has claimed credit for his state's rebound by closing a massive budget deficit and creating a more business-friendly environment.
What's clear is that Ohio's unemployment rate is down sharply from its peak of 10.6% three years ago. Only three states had stronger job growth in the first half of the year, according to IHS Global Insight. The improvement in manufacturing positions, which began in early 2010, is the best the state has experienced since the mid-1990s.
"We still are struggling with challenges, like many states," said Dan Meges, an economist at Chmura Economics & Analytics in Cleveland. "But we've had a pretty sustained turnaround from our low point."
The story is similar in some, but not all, battleground states.
Florida is the biggest swing-state laggard, with a higher-than-average jobless mark and a still-floundering housing market.
Despite some signs of improvement, the jobs market is not projected to recover its recession-related losses until 2016.