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Primary results may hinge on state job outlook

Job seekers wait in line to register for a job fair
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
Job seekers wait in line to register for a job fair

It's about jobs and wages, stupid.

Despite continued improvement in the U.S. job market, many voters remain worried about whether they'll lose their livelihood. And with wage gains hard to come by, they're also wondering whether they'll be able to pay their monthly bills.

Since this year's election campaign got underway, job creation has been the centerpiece of each candidate's rhetoric on improving voters' economic well-being.

"I will be greatest jobs president that God ever created, I tell you that," Republican candidate Donald Trump declared when he launched his campaign at a speech in New York last June. "I'll bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, Japan, from so many places. I'll bring back our jobs and I'll bring back our money."

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been somewhat less pointed in her claim, but has repeated the theme of job creation and higher wages broadly in stump speeches. In a talk last year unveiling a broad economic plan, she noted that small businesses remain a key source of job creation for many American workers.

"I've said I want to be the small-business president, and I mean it," she said " And throughout this campaign, I'm going to be talking about how we empower entrepreneurs with less red tape, easier access to capital, tax relief and simplification."

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On Friday, the Labor Department reported that total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 242,000 in February, and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.9 percent.

Despite the strong payroll increase, wage gains remained weak. Last month, average hourly earnings fell by 3 cents — to $25.35. For the year, earnings are up 2.2 percent.

Those numbers will likely continue to play a major role in this year's presidential campaign. As the field narrows, the front-runners from both parties remain focused on economic issues in states where upcoming primaries may soon win enough delegates to clinch their party's nomination.

The U.S. economy has been steadily putting Americans back to work for the last six years — the jobless rate has been cut in half since peaking at 10 percent in October 2009. But that recovery has been unevenly felt around the country.

Read MoreJob creation jumps in February

In December, the latest state level data available, the average national jobless rate was 5.0 percent. But in North Dakota, where an oil and gas boom has — until recently — generated a surge in employment, the jobless rate stood at just 2.7 percent. In Mississippi, on the other hand, 6.8 percent of the workforce was unemployed in December.

The difference in the job outlook from state to state could either help or hurt the front-runners as their campaigns continue through the remainder of the primary season. In states where job gains have been robust, Clinton may have a better chance making the case that keeping a Democrat in the White House would produce more jobs than electing a Republican.

Trump's message of an American economy in decline, on the other hand, may resonant more strongly in states that have been losing jobs.

Those jobless rates may not tell the whole story, because the rate doesn't include people who have gotten so discouraged about their jobs prospects, they've given up looking for work altogether. A better measure might look at the total number of jobs gained or lost.

Last year, nonfarm employment rose in 43 states and the District of Columbia and fell in seven states. The biggest gains on a percentage basis were in Idaho (+4.4 percent), South Carolina (+3.3 percent) and Utah (+3.2 percent). The biggest employment drops were in North Dakota (-4.0 percent), Wyoming (-2.2 percent) and West Virginia (-1.5 percent).

And it remains to be seen whether those trends hold up, as some economist warn the U.S. economy is showing signs of weakening.

On a month-over-month basis, payrolls in December rose in just 36 states and the District of Columbia, and fell in 14 states. The largest monthly gains were in California (+60,400), Texas (+24,900), and Florida (+21,900), while the states with the biggest job losses were Illinois (-16,300), Oklahoma (-5,100), and North Dakota (-4,000).

On a percentage basis, the biggest gainers were Alaska (+0.8 percent), followed by Arkansas, South Carolina, and Tennessee (+0.7 percent each). The biggest percentage losses came in North Dakota (-0.9 percent), Vermont (-0.7 percent) and Wyoming (-0.6 percent).

While it's clear that voters care about job creation, it's much harder to assess the viability of pledges offered by Clinton and Trump.

Trump has pointed to the jobs he created in his business career, but those claims are impossible to analyze because his companies are private and don't have to report employment levels. A full accounting of any jobs created by his successful businesses also would have to be offset by jobs lost in those of his ventures that failed.

While, as a senator from New York, Clinton influenced legislation that may have helped or hurt employment, she — unlike the current and former governors in the race running on their job creation records — did not have sole responsibility for managing a public budget and implementing economic policies directly.

Her campaign has reminded voters of the job creation record of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, whose two terms in the White House in the 1990s coincided with one of the longest economic expansions in half a century and generated more than 23 million new jobs.

But the Clinton White House also coincided with a period of rapid globalization and opening of trade that spurred a wave of American jobs moving offshore to cheaper labor markets overseas. That trend was accelerated by trade agreements that included the North American Free Trade Agreement which Bill Clinton signed shortly after taking office in 1993.