U.S. employers added only 80,000 jobs in June, a third straight month of weak hiring that shows the economy is struggling.
The Labor Department says the unemployment rate was unchanged at 8.2 percent.
The economy has added just 75,000 jobs a month in the April-June quarter. That's one-third of 226,000 a month created in the first quarter. Job creation is also trailing last year's pace through the first six months of 2012.
A weaker job market has made consumers less confident. They have pulled back on spending, even though gas prices have plunged.
High unemployment could shift momentum to Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. An Associated Press-GfK poll released last month found that more than half of those surveyed disapproved of President Barack Obama's handling of the economy.
That is why many political scientists and consultants consider Friday’s jobs report and the ones immediately following it to be so important — perhaps more so than those of the previous three years.
“I don’t know whether it is because American voters are myopic, or because they are forward-looking,” said Andrew Gelman, the director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University. “But they appear to care most about change in the economy in the year preceding the election,” rather than the state of the economy over an incumbent president’s first four years.
Some narrow the critical period even more, arguing that what happens from April until October of an election year weighs especially heavily on voters’ minds.
“It’s difficult to sort out the electoral effects of specific slivers of economic conditions,” said Larry M. Bartels, a Vanderbilt University professor of political science. But he cited the economic climate of the middle of the election year as unusually important — a time when even wavering voters begin to lock in decisions on the presidential race and lock out conflicting reports about the economy.
This political reality is not lost on the Obama and Romney campaigns, which have sparred over the state of the economy to the near exclusion of every other issue.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, has centered his campaign on the notion that President Obama’s incompetence as an economic steward has made recovery weaker than it need have been — with unemployment too high and job growth too slow.
Mr. Obama has countered that Mr. Romney’s business record at Bain Capital epitomizes the profits-at any-cost philosophy that has cut middle-class jobs. As for his own record, he argues that pushing the 2009 stimulus program through Congress has helped the economy rebound and that without it, the nation would be in worse economic straits.
“Throughout history, it has typically taken countries up to 10 years to recover from financial crises of this magnitude,” Mr. Obama said recently, noting the sustained recessions in Europe. He added, “Our economy started growing again six months after I took office, and it has continued to grow for the last three years.”
The question now is which economic messages will sink in among the pool of voters — roughly one in 10 — who tell pollsters they are undecided.
Steve Schmidt, the 2008 campaign manager for Senator John McCain’s presidential bid, said voter attitudes about the economy had solidified already and would not be much affected by new jobs numbers on Friday or the rest of the year.
“The shape of the playing field is largely set,” Mr. Schmidt said. “They believe it’s a very bad economy. They’re pessimistic and they’re anxious. The campaign that wins is the campaign best able to address the anxiety. It’s a comfort argument.”
So far, he added, polls show Mr. Obama making headway in swing states with his attacks on Mr. Romney’s priorities, his finances and his record at Bain. But Mr. Romney will have ample opportunity to sell his ideas for economic growth this fall.
“The arguments that campaigns put out in July and August are largely unheard by the people who will decide the election,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Both sides are putting down markers for the arguments they’ll make in the fall.”
Moreover, the arguments likeliest to prove decisive will come not from candidates directly, but from peers and acquaintances of those undecided voters — whom campaign strategists consider the most persuasive messengers. “Both campaigns will have extraordinarily sophisticated outreach and targeting operations,” Mr. Schmidt said. “If you’re an undecided teacher, you’ll get phone calls from other teachers,” as well as messages from Facebook friends and Twitter followers.
Analysts say voters give more heed to where the economy is headed than to its current state. That means a president overseeing a high but falling unemployment rate might have a better shot than a president overseeing a lower but increasing one.
To make the point, Mr. Gelman used the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, who did not win re-election, and Ronald Reagan, who did. “Under Carter, the economy did well and then got worse,” he said. “Under Reagan, it got worse and then got better. If you average over four years, the economy was better under Carter than Reagan. But that is not how voters think.”
The theory stands up, with some caveats, in recent elections. President George Bush lost his 1992 bid for re-election with joblessness just starting to recede after the early 1990s recession; the trend did not start early enough for voters to give him credit. An earlier upturn helped the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton, win a second term in 1996.
Studies also show that voters make their decisions based less on their personal experiences than a general sentiment — meaning news articles about the national economy this summer might be more influential than each voter’s experience, or a neighbor’s business, or a cousin’s or child’s trouble getting a job.
“If I’m the voter, I’m not paying attention to statistics,” said John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. “I’m not going to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site to look at the jobs report. I’m paying attention to news reports. And the trend in unemployment is often driving the news coverage.”
Some pollsters reject the idea that summer economic measures will settle the choices of undecided voters, who tend to make up their minds very late.
“Personally, I think it borders on the ridiculous,” said Mark Mellman, a prominent Democratic pollster. “No one can say for sure that anything is truly locked in at any point.” But others said that polls and studies demonstrated the outsize influence of second- and third-quarter economic data. “It’s more that economic changes take several months to be felt by voters,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.
In a worrisome trend for the Obama campaign, much of the economic strength of the winter has dissipated. Forecasters expect the jobs and growth reports in the next few months to be uninspiring. Bright spots in the recovery — like exports and the manufacturing sector — seem to be stalling out.
“Events that occur between now and the election do matter, and communications changes obviously speed everything up,” said Mr. Ayres. “But voters have to see a lot more jobs in their communities between now and then, and time is running out on that.”