For all the chatter that the winner of the 2012 presidential election will be determined by the economy, you wouldn't know it by looking at the most closely contested states.
The recovery is still tepid in most parts of the country, and there's a sense of trepidation that signs of improvement might not last. Among the swing states, some are doing comparatively well while others are struggling — but the political picture looks roughly the same in all.
The polling picture in Nevada, for instance, which has the worst unemployment rate in the nation at 11.6 percent, isn't looking much different from New Hampshire, where unemployment is just 5 percent. (The national average is 8.2 percent.)
"You would think this would be a terrible state for [President] Obama," says Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno. "The economy's bad, it remains bad, and there's not a lot of optimism about a quick recovery."
But Nevada is where Obama enjoys one of his largest leads among the swing states, according to polling averages compiled by RealClearPolitics. Conversely, the president isn't opening up anything like a comfortable lead over Republican rival Mitt Romney in battleground states with relatively low unemployment, such as New Hampshire and Iowa.
Obama On Defense
"Even if the state itself seems not so bad as some other states, there's a sense that we're electing a president, we're not electing a governor," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
The fact that the economy has been stuck in low gear explains why Obama is almost exclusively playing defense against Romney. The question of his re-election turns on his ability to hold onto the bulk of the states he won four years ago.
Indiana and North Carolina appear already out of his reach. And voters in the main battleground states remain uncertain about whether he deserves a second term. Obama maintains a slight polling lead in those states but certainly doesn't command clear majority support, mirroring the national outlook.
That's why the president is out trying to make the case that while things aren't great, they've improved on his watch and would get worse under Romney.
"This is the Democratic strategy, and maybe the only one — to shift blame either on past administrations or Europe," says Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness. "That has to be what's going on, because certainly the current situation in the economy is not something you'd think someone could get re-elected on."
Other factors are at work, such as ideological and partisan leanings, and voter reactions to such issues as health care and same-sex marriage. Still, the economy remains dominant, and the presidential race remains too close to call with four months to go before Election Day.
Here are snapshots of the economic and political situations in several swing states:
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