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Falling jobless trend bodes well for Obama

WASHINGTON -- Unemployment is higher than it's been going into any election year since World War II.

But history shows that won't necessarily stop President Barack Obama from reclaiming the White House.

In a presidential election year, the unemployment trend can be more important to an incumbent's chances than the unemployment rate.

Going back to 1956, no incumbent president has lost when unemployment fell over the two years leading up to the election. And none has won when it rose.

The picture is similar in the 12 months before presidential elections: Only one of nine incumbent presidents (Gerald Ford in 1976) lost when unemployment fell over that year, and only one (Dwight Eisenhower in 1956) was re-elected when it rose.

Those precedents bode well for Obama. Unemployment was 9.8 percent in November 2010, two years before voters decide whether Obama gets to stay in the White House. It was down to 8.7 percent in November 2011, a year before the vote. It fell to 8.5 percent in December and is expected to fall further by Election Day.

Even so, the unemployment rate is still at recession levels. And Mitt Romney, who is contending with other Republican candidates to challenge Obama in November, has made the weak economy the centerpiece of his campaign.

In a statement Friday, Romney said Obama's policies "have slowed the recovery and created misery for 24 million Americans who are unemployed, or stuck in part-time jobs when what they really want is full-time work."

Obama can take comfort in President Ronald Reagan's experience. In November 1982, unemployment was 10.8 percent. By November 1984, it was still a relatively high 7.2 percent, but the downward trend was unmistakable. Reagan was re-elected.

"A sense that things are on the mend is really important to people," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

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