WASHINGTON - If you are closely following the 2012 presidential race, you have to track the state by state jobless numbers, because they will decide who wins.
It wasn't reported on the network nightly news shows last week, but many states saw their unemployment rates climb, including a few that are pivotal battleground states that could decide who will be our next president.
These numbers are compiled and reported by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics and they are just as important -- maybe more so -- than the campaign polls and what the candidates may be saying on any given day.
You do not get much information about unemployment on the nightly news, except when the monthly job numbers come out. Which is irresponsible, because these numbers deal with the desperate, daily struggles of tens of millions American workers and their families.
BLS says that non-farm employment fell in 22 states in May. The largest month-to-month decrease in employment was in North Carolina(-16,500) followed by Pennsylvania (-9,900) and tax-happy Maryland (-7,500).
Barack Obama carried North Carolina by an eyelash (14,000 votes out of 4.3 million) in 2008, but that state is now up for grabs and could deny him its 15 electoral votes and his chances for a second term.
If you were looking for a state unemployment rate that illustrates all that is wrong with the Obama economy and his policies, North Carolina is one of the worst. The jobless rate there is 9.4 percent, the fourth highest in the nation.
While that could well be enough to shift this state into the GOP's column and significantly tighten the electoral battle, Pennsylvania's potential could be decisive.
It is usually considered a swing state, even though the Democrats have carried it in the last five elections. Obama won there by an overwhelming 11 percent margin.
But unemployment is high there, 7.4 percent, with the real jobless rate closer to 9 percent if you count workers who have stopped looking for a job or are forced to work fewer hours, or take temporary jobs or low paying counter work.
BLS reports that the state lost nearly 10,000 jobs, an ominous sign of Pennsylvania's weakening job market as well as the economy's overall continuing decline.
Mitt Romney's focus on job losses and the economy has made this state a tossup. A Quinnipiac state poll last week showed Obama declining to just a 6 point lead over his Republican challenger, with a huge undecided vote.
If the economic forecasts are correct that the economy is in for several more months of feeble growth that'll push unemployment levels higher, Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes would push Romney into the winners column.
Just about all of the economic forecasts are trending in Romney's direction as the sluggish economy inexorably moves toward the end-of-the-year "fiscal cliff" when the the Bush tax cuts will expire unless the administration and Congress cut a budget deal to keep them in place.
Perhaps the most frightening forecast came from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that said the Obama economy was headed for a recession in 2013 if a compromise agreement is not reached.
"It is very, very slow growth, but don't expect that to change anytime soon," says Moody's Analytics economist James Bohnaker. "As we get closer to the election and the so-called Fiscal Cliff, businesses are going to stay pretty conservative in their hiring."
This is why the most closely watched state-by-state political charts in both Obama's and Romney's campaign headquarters are the unemployment rates.
The Obama administration predicted not long after it took office in 2009 that unemployment would be brought down to less than 8 percent. But last month's state-by-state numbers showed 20 states with effectively 8 percent unemployment or higher.
No president since the Great Depression has won re-election with the national unemployment rate at that level.
What should be clear right now at Obama's campaign headquarters and in the West Wing is that they are not going to win this election on his handling of the economy. So the president is playing a zero sum game by picking issues that appeal to special interest groups in the hopes of stitching together enough electoral votes to squeak out a narrow victory.
Thus, he talks about lowering student loans or reaches out to the Hispanic voter bloc with a politically-motivated immigration rules change to keep younger Hispanics, who were brought here by illegal migrant parents, from being deported.
It may help him on the margins, but unemployment may be the bigger issue for many jobless Hispanics, while low voter turnout among this voting bloc may be Obama's far bigger problem.
"The U.S. economy flirts with recession," University of Maryland business economist Peter Morici writes this week.
Jobless claims are climbing, fewer jobs are created, worker productivity is down, auto sales are off their first quarter high, wages are flat, manufacturing orders are down, and Europe's economy is riddled with debt and skyrocketing unemployment that threatens to ricochet through our economy.
Meantime, Obama is trying to convince a recession-weary electorate that "the private sector is doing fine" when its workforce shrank by nearly 4 percent in the last four years and the federal workforce is still growing at a healthy rate.
There is a growing sense across the country that voters are looking for answers to how we can pull ourselves out of this economic mess, and all they are hearing from the president are excuses.
They want a plan to grow our economy, but they're coming to the conclusion that raising taxes on investors, employers and risk-takers -- and borrowing more spending money -- are not the answers.
How this all turns out in the end can be found in the state unemployment rates. Watch them closely.
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