By Lisa Lambert
(Reuters) - Ahead of a U.S. presidential election widely considered a referendum on President Barack Obama's job creation efforts, all but two states reported improving jobless rates in January from a year ago, with some swing states hitting the lowest rates in three years.
The Labor Department also said on Tuesday that 45 out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia had drops in their jobless rates in January from December.
The improvements encompassed all swing states where neither President Barack Obama nor his future Republican opponent have a clear overwhelming majority.
Because of the unique U.S. electoral system where states cast votes for President, the employment situations of some areas could influence the presidential election more than others. Ten states in particular are considered toss-ups representing 130 electoral votes. A candidate must collect 270 electoral votes to win.
Coming into office at the height of the financial crisis, Obama quickly bailed out banks and automobile companies and enacted a package of spending and tax measures intended to create thousands of jobs.
Only recently has the national unemployment rate edged down, however, reaching a three-year low of 8.3 percent in February and January. In January, 35 states fell to that rate or lower.
Of the 10 swing states, only three had rates higher than the national one. The rate in Nevada was 12.7 percent. In North Carolina it was 10.2 percent and in Florida 9.6 percent.
The fight over job creation could be particularly tough in Nevada, which flourished during the housing boom, leaving it vulnerable to the real estate collapse. The recession also kept many Americans away from entertainment cities Las Vegas and Reno. Nevada has had the highest unemployment rate in the nation for at least a year and a half.
Still, its January rate was the lowest since September 2008 and well below the state's record high of 14 percent reached in October 2010, nearly two years after Obama won the election.
Over the three years Obama has been in office, North Carolina and Florida also hit record high jobless rates, both reaching 11.4 percent two years ago. But in January 2012, North Carolina's rate was the lowest since April 2009 and Florida's the lowest since March 2009.
In Colorado, another swing state, the jobless rate climbed to a record 9 percent at the end of 2010. By January, it had fallen to 7.8 percent, the lowest since March 2009.
Swing state Iowa's rate of 5.4 percent in January was the lowest since December 2008, as was Missouri's 7.5 percent. New Hampshire's January rate of 5.2 percent and Virginia's 5.8 percent were the lowest since January 2009.
Ohio, a swing state that proved crucial to President George W. Bush's win in 2004, registered its lowest rate since November 2008, 7.7 percent. After Texas and New York, the manufacturing-heavy state also added the most jobs in the month, 32,800.
Even though its unemployment rate fell in January, Florida lost the most jobs of all the states that month, 38,600. Pennsylvania, another swing state, followed, shedding 9,000 jobs.
After the fight over which candidate won Florida in the 2000 presidential election went all the way to the Supreme Court, the country has closely watched the state's politics.
Its governor, Rick Scott, is a Republican who came to power as part of a wave of conservative anger that pushed Democrats out of office across the nation in 2010, but the state's 29 electoral votes, the most of any swing state's, are still considered up for grabs in 2012.
Four years ago, the story of how politics and economics connect was centered in one state: Michigan.
Throughout the 2008 primaries and general election, it had the highest jobless rate in the nation, as massive financial struggles at the three leading U.S. automobile companies took a heavy toll on factory jobs.
For the last year, the state has experienced a radical turnaround. According to its labor department, its January jobless rate of 8.9 percent was the lowest since September 2008 and marked the fourth straight month of an unemployment rate under 10 percent. The state gained 16,000 jobs in January.
"With the rate decline in January, Michigan's unemployment rate has fallen by around five full percentage points since the end of the national recession in mid-2009," said Rick Waclawek, director of the Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives.
The state and its 16 electoral votes are in play in the 2012 election, but currently are counted as leaning toward Obama.
In January, North Dakota again had the lowest jobless rate, 3.2 percent. Texas gained the most jobs, 67,200.
Among the 50 states, only New York's unemployment rate rose in January, to 8.3 percent from 8.2 percent in January 2011, while the rate in Illinois was the same as last year, 9.4 percent.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by James Dalgleish)