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.
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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.