WASHINGTON – About one in four of the nation’s new jobs last month was created in Florida, a hopeful sign that the stricken state will slowly resume its customary role as an engine for economic growth during the next four years.
Economists say it might happen, and Florida voters certainly hope so.
While competing for Florida’s 29 electoral votes, President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney will convey conflicting messages of hope and despair when they discuss economic issues during their debate Wednesday night. They know that voter perceptions about the direction of the economy could decide the election, especially in the big boom-to-bust swing state of Florida.
Florida polls and voter comments last week indicate disillusionment with Obama after four years of plunging property values and long-term unemployment – but also wariness about Romney. Many voters sense that neither candidate holds the key to revving up the economy and creating jobs.
Republicans figure the jobs issue will trump all others – such as health care and immigration – and they are counting on voters venting their frustration when they troop to the polls.
“If we end up fighting about these peripheral issues, that’s the only chance Obama has in Florida,” said John Dowless, a Republican campaign consultant in Orlando. “If we keep the focus on balancing the budget and the economy, Republicans will win.”
But recent polls indicate that Florida voters are about equally divided or slightly favor Obama on economic issues.
A Washington Post poll released last week found that, when asked which candidate they trusted “to do a better job handling the economy,” Florida voters favored Obama over Romney, 49 percent to 45 percent.
This and other polls consistently have found that voters tend to think Obama can empathize more than Romney with their struggles. In the Post poll, Obama led 53 percent to 39 percent when Florida voters were asked which candidate “understands economic problems people are having.” And he led Romney 60 percent to 35 percent when respondents were asked which candidate will do a better job “advancing the interests of the middle class.”
Similarly, a Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll last week found that likely voters in Florida favored Obama over Romney 51 percent to 46 percent when asked which would do a better job on the economy.
Obama’s prospects may have brightened because of improvements in Florida’s economy since the state’s unemployment rate peaked at 11.4 percent in January 2010 — though the 8.8 percent rate in August remains stubbornly high. Worse, state economists say that more than 90 percent of the decline was because discouraged unemployed workers abandoned their job search.
“Although we are creating jobs, people are earning less, and the jobs that are coming back are not the higher-paid quality jobs in manufacturing and construction,” said Alayne Unterberger, associate director of the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy at Florida International University.
Nevertheless, 28,200 nonagricultural jobs were created in August, the biggest monthly increase since April 2011 and a significant net gain despite a loss of 5,200 government positions. In the past 12 months, the private sector has added almost 80,000 jobs in the Sunshine State — offset somewhat by 10,300 state and local government jobs that have disappeared.
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Romney has promised to take a businesslike approach to government while slashing taxes, government spending and federal regulations — such as clean-air and clean-water rules — that he says stifle job creation. He also wants to encourage states to enact “right-to-work” laws that make it easier for workers to avoid joining labor unions or contributing money to their causes.
Obama tried to spur the economy by pumping about $800 billion of federal “stimulus” money into construction work, clean-energy projects and research while aiding the unemployed, cutting employment taxes and bolstering local and state spending on teachers, police and government workers. On the campaign trail, though, Obama rarely talks about the stimulus bill, which economists say broke the fall of the economy but failed to spark a robust recovery or create millions more sustainable private-sector jobs.
The bill that Obama pushed through Congress in 2009 poured about $25 billion into Florida and created or saved 173,000 jobs, according to the White House. But those estimates are sharply questioned by skeptics.
The election will decide whether the signs of recovery are too little, too late to help Obama win the state, and whether Romney presents an alternative that does not sound too much like the policies of former President George W. Bush.
©2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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