WASHINGTON — The improving economy is swinging the pendulum in President Barack Obama's favor in the 14 states where the presidential election will likely be decided.
Recent polls have shown Obama gaining an edge over his likely Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, in several so-called swing states — those that are considered up for grabs.
What's made the difference is that unemployment has dropped more sharply in several swing states than in the nation as a whole. A resurgence in manufacturing is helping the economy — and Obama's chances — in the industrial Midwestern states of Ohio and Michigan.
And Arizona, Nevada and Florida, where unemployment remains high, are getting some relief from an uptick in tourism.
"The biggest reason for the president's improving prospects probably is the economy," says Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The recent economic recession hit several swing states particularly hard. Unemployment peaked at 14.2 percent in Michigan, where the auto industry faced ruin. It also hit double digits in Arizona, Nevada and Florida, which were at the center of the housing bust, and in North Carolina, which lost jobs in textile and furniture plants.
In 2010, the economic misery helped Republicans retake control of the U.S. House and gain seats in the U.S. Senate. But the GOP can't count on a repeat when voters return to the polls — with much more at stake — on Nov. 6.
After an agonizingly slow recovery, several swing-state economies are finally accelerating:
Still, political analysts caution that voter sentiment — not to mention economic momentum — can turn fast. A month before the most recent polling, for instance, Obama was running behind or neck-and-neck with Romney in battleground states.
"The election is not today; it is seven months away," Quinnipiac's Brown says.
A jobs recovery fizzled in mid-2011, so there's no guarantee the unemployment rate will continue to fall this year.
Indeed, Romney was quick to pounce after the government said job creation plunged in March after three strong months of growth. Romney called the numbers "weak and very troubling ... Millions of Americans are paying a high price for President Obama's economic policies."
Higher gasoline prices, up 60 cents this year to a national average $3.88 a gallon, could also turn voters against Obama. Still, prices have dropped over the past two weeks, and analysts say they could fall further.
Political analysts also wonder whether voters will end up holding Obama responsible for the poor state of the housing market, even if the job market has improved.
Jonathan Ketcham, a marketing professor at Arizona State University who has analyzed voting behavior, says academic studies haven't investigated how housing trends affect voters' decisions. Housing hasn't been a major issue in a presidential campaign before. But since 2006, a drop in home prices has wiped out $7 trillion in home equity, the biggest source of wealth for most families.
In Nevada, more than six in 10 homes are "underwater" — meaning they're worth less than the mortgages on them.
In February, foreclosures surged more in Florida's two biggest cities — Miami and Tampa — from February 2011 than anywhere else, according to RealtyTrac. Foreclosures are up partly because they were delayed last year by a legal fight over lenders that processed foreclosures without verifying documents.
Now, foreclosures are rising again in places like Florida where the housing bust did the most damage. That is worrisome for Obama, whose housing policies haven't made much of a dent in the crisis, says Susan MacManus, a government professor at the University of South Florida.
Then again, state economic trends might not even make much difference. Political scientists who study voter behavior say most Americans tend to base their views about the economy — and their votes — more on what's happening nationwide than on what's happening closer to home.
The academic findings might seem to defy common sense. But reports on the ups and downs of unemployment, gross domestic product and other nationwide economic indicators appear constantly on television news, in newspapers and on the Internet.
So in some ways, ordinary Americans hear more about the national economy than they hear about economic conditions in their own communities, says Ketcham. He also says it "could be that people simply understand that local conditions are beyond the reach of national politicians."
The national economic trend favors Obama, too. Unemployment is down significantly from its 10 percent peak in October 2009. No incumbent president dating to 1956 has lost when unemployment fell during the two years leading up to his re-election contest. Conversely, none has won when the rate rose.
Unemployment was 9.8 percent in November 2010.
Last month, eight months before Election Day, the rate was 8.2 percent.