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Wages strong nationally but mixed in key election swing states

An employee welds a specialized metal product at the Amuneal Manufacturing plant in Philadelphia.
Paul Taggart | Bloomberg | Getty Images
An employee welds a specialized metal product at the Amuneal Manufacturing plant in Philadelphia.

After a long, painful slog trying to make ends meet, American workers' paychecks are finally getting bigger with wages showing their biggest gain in seven years in the October jobs report.

But the story in crucial swing states is much more mixed, versus the 2.8 percent national gain.

The uneveness in battleground states will play a big part in voters' decisions Tuesday about which candidate to send to the White House.

Among the critical swing states, the biggest gains have come in North Carolina (5.9 percent), New Hampshire (5.5 percent), Virginia (3.3 percent), Ohio (3.2 percent) and Arizona (3.1 percent) in the 12 months ended in September, the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The states' data is tallied separately from the monthly national jobs report.

Wage growth has been slower in Iowa (2.1 percent), Florida (1.9 percent), Pennsylvania (1.9 percent), Maine (0.6 percent), Nevada (0.3 percent) and Colorado, where wages have ticked down by 0.9 percent.

For the last year, as the presidential campaign heated up, the monthly BLS numbers show a U.S. job market that, overall, continues to improve after a wave of layoffs wiped out millions of paychecks in the depths of the Great Recession.

The latest reading on U.S. employment Friday showed that another 161,000 new jobs were created last month, sending the unemployment rate back down a tenth of a percent to 4.9 percent. Revisions to the past two monthly reports added a total of 44,000 new jobs to those initial estimates.

Though job creation was a bit slower than expected, wages posted strong gains. As the labor market has tightened, employers are raising wages to find and keep good workers.

Last year, the median household income rose by 5.2 percent — the first significant gain in more than a decade.

Those national "headline" numbers show a U.S. job market that continues to improve.

Still, for most Americans, the recovery of the last seven years has been a long trek. And for many, the recovery hasn't yet arrived. To see where, you have to look deep into Bureau of Labor Statistics data that is often overlooked.

Voters will decide next Tuesday which candidate would provide better work options. But many will make that judgment based less on the campaign rhetoric than on how hard it is to find a good job where they live.

The job outlook will play an especially strong role in the handful of states where voter polls show the tightest races. Some states will be more important than others. Just four of them, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia come with a combined 66 electoral votes, or 24 percent of the 270 needed to win the election.

While the national jobless rate has fallen roughly in half since the depths of the Great Recession, job growth has been uneven in these battleground states. Since the national trough in early 2010, states like Arizona and North Carolina have seen payrolls rise faster than the national average.

But states with older, industrial economies like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin haven't fared as well. Michigan, which is seen as leaning Democrat. has bounced back well since the recession. But employment levels there still haven't recovered to levels seen before the Great Recession hit in late 2007.

Wage gains have also been unevenly shared from one state to another. In Minnesota and North Carolina, for example, wages jumped by 5.9 percent in the 12 months ended in September, the latest data available. But wages fell slightly in Colorado and New Mexico during the same period.

When viewed at the county level, there's an even wider range of job prospects from one region to another. In Douglas County, South Dakota, for example, the jobless rate stood at just 1.7 percent, the lowest in the country in September, the latest data available from the BLS. That same month, Imperial County, California, registered a jobless rate of 22.7 percent, the highest in the country.

That's one reason the jobs issue has resonated so differently with so many millions of voters. And why both candidates have tried so hard to touch that electoral nerve.

Republican hopeful Donald Trump has promised to close U.S. borders to immigrants that he claims are supplanting U.S. workers, renegotiate trade deals that he blames for offshoring work to cheaper overseas labor markets and bully American CEOs into limiting their investment in new production to factories built on American soil.

Democratic rival Hillary Clinton has proposed a quarter-trillion-dollar infrastructure construction program, government assistance to help retrain outsourced workers and laid-off coal miners, and federal incentives to boost job creation with clean energy industries like wind and solar.

And as the race comes down to a handful of battleground states, Florida and Ohio have emerged as the front lines. Those races will play out differently from one county to the next.

Wages are up by 1.9 percent in Florida, and by 3.2 percent statewide in Ohio. But job prospects are uneven at the county level.

More than half of Florida voters live in just 10 of the Sunshine State's 67 counties. Of those top 10, all but two lean Democratic, including those encompassing major cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.

Democratic candidates may benefit from lower-than-average jobless rates in Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, and Orlando. They may be slightly disadvantaged by jobless rates in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Polk counties, where the jobless rate is a few tenths of a percent above the national average.

Only 12 counties in the Florida have jobless rates above 6 percent, and every county is seeing improvement in the pace of hiring, pushing the jobless rate lower over the last 12 months. That could help bolster the Democrats' claims that the Obama administration's economic policies are working.

In Ohio, the jobless rate has fallen in just 15 of the state's 88 counties. Of the top 10 most populous counties, eight skew Democratic, based on the results of the 2012 election. In Franklin County, Columbus has a jobless rate of just 3.9 percent. But that rate is close to the national average in counties in and around Cincinnati, Akron and Toledo.

Job markets are weaker in Cleveland and Youngstown, where the jobless rates have risen by a percentage point in the last 12 months. That could help Republicans hoping to persuade voters it's time for a change of parties in the White House.

Correction: The Great Recession hit in late 2007. An earlier version misstated the year.