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Unemployment projected at 7.7% in November 2012, highest during a presidential election since 1976

March 14, 2011 | 10:12 am

Gerald ford
It's a case of good news/bad news, economy style, for President Obama.

The unemployment rate will be down to 7.7% when voters go to the polls in November 2012 to pick the next president, a major improvement from last month's 8.9% and far from the 10.1% high it reached in late 2009, according to the average forecast of economists in a Wall Street Journal survey released Monday.

But that jobless figure would be the highest for a presidential election month since 1976, when an unemployment rate of 7.8% helped sink incumbent Gerald Ford in his race against Jimmy Carter. That was the only time the unemployment rate topped 7.7% for a presidential election since the Labor Department began keeping jobless data in 1948.

Historians would note that Ford wasn't a true incumbent, having replaced President Nixon in 1974 during the Watergate scandal. Ford's defeat in 1976 was more about backlash from that controversy -- and his decision to pardon Nixon -- than the economy.

Still, the unemployment rate has topped 7% in a presidential election month just four times since the end of World War II -- and incumbents lost in three of those instances.

Carter was on the wrong end of the economic backlash in 1980 when he lost to Ronald Reagan with the unemployment rate at 7.5%. And George H.W. Bush lost the White House to Bill Clinton when the rate was 7.4% in November 1992.

The only exception was Reagan in 1984. He won a landslide reelection despite an unemployment rate of 7.2%. And on that point Obama could find some optimism.

Although the 1984 rate was high, it was down dramatically from 10.8% exactly two years earlier. That trend helped Reagan successfully argue that the economy was on the mend and it was "Morning in America."


Two presidents, two recessions 

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Photo: President Ford in 1975. Credit: Associated Press