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In his 1906 autobiography Mark Twain wrote "figures often beguile me" in describing their persuasive ability to mislead.
John Robitaille, a 2010 Republican candidate for governor in Rhode Island, cited a beguiling statistic when he Tweeted: "Unemployment rate dropped in every state that elected a Republican gov. in 2010"
That sure sounded authoritative. We wondered whether it was true and, if so, was there more to the story.
Robitaille told PolitiFact his claim came from an item he saw on the website of the late Andrew Breitbart, a conservative blogger and commentator.
Indeed the Breitbart blog, quoting an analysis done by Examiner.com -- a Denver-based media company that operates a network of local news websites -- says that in 2010, 17 states that had elected Republican governors had seen a drop in their unemployment rate since January 2011.
The website nods to the fact that the unemployment rate also dropped in seven out of eight other states that elected Democratic governors.
In fact, we also found that the unemployment rate has fallen in every state but one (New York) in the last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So, in other words, despite the implication in Robitaille’s shorthand claim, there’s no apparent link between the party affiliation of the governor and a decline in the unemployment rate.
But it’s worth scrutinizing the assumption that any new governor would have an immediate effect on a state’s unemployment rate.
In rating claims like these in the past, PolitiFact has interviewed experts who say it's a stretch to blame -- or praise -- a governor for the complex things that happen in a state economy.
"Presidents, governors, and mayors can have an impact on job creation during their terms in office," said Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution. "Almost always, however, the impact is small in relation to the effects of events and trends over which elected officials have little control, especially in their first few years on the job."
"A recession that is underway or begins soon after a president or governor takes office is in no way the fault of the new officeholder," said Burtless. "The flip side is that chief executives cannot claim much credit for a strong economic recovery that begins shortly before or after they take the oath of office. The conditions that made the recovery possible were already present when their term in office began."
(PolitiFact has noted that Burtless contributed $750 to Obama’s campaign in 2011. However, in 2008 he provided advice on aspects of labor policy to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and he has worked as a government economist and served on federal advisory panels under presidents of both parties.)
Despite this, let’s play devil’s advocate and assume a causal relationship exists between new governors and the unemployment rate.
There were 37 gubernatorial races in 2010. In 11 races, the incumbent won and in Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, an independent, won.
Robert Elliott, the author of the Examiner study, said in an email that he focused on the remaining 25 races because he wanted to compare "new Republican governors vs. new Democratic governors."
Overall, he found that in the 17 states that elected Republican governors, the average drop in the unemployment rate was 1.35 percent, compared to an average drop of 0.95 in the eight states that elected Democratic governors.
But comparing the newly elected governors from both parties doesn’t make much sense, since some replaced governors of the opposite party and some replaced governors of the same party.
Let’s look at just those governors who replaced someone from the opposite party -- cases in which their opportunity to make policy changes would arguably have been most stark.
Each of the five Democrats who replaced Republicans actually had a record as good or better than their predecessor over an equivalent period of time.
In two cases -- California and Connecticut -- unemployment went up under the Republican predecessor and fell under the Democratic successor. The average decline under the Republican predecessors was 0.3 percentage points, compared to 1.16 percentage points for the Democratic successors -- a decline four times as fast as under the Democrats.
Meanwhile, it’s true that in 9 of the 11 cases in which a Republican replaced a Democratic governor, the unemployment-rate decline was steeper under the Republican successor. But the overall differences were modest. The average decrease under the Republican successors was 1.19 percentage points, compared to 0.95 percentage points under the Democratic predecessors.
Let’s now look at the six cases in which Republican governors succeeded Republicans in 2010.
The predecessor Republicans saw average unemployment decreases of 0.71 percent, a rate that was exceeded by the successor Republicans, who saw unemployment drop by 1.6 percentage points.
So Republicans who succeeded Republicans did significantly better than Republicans who succeeded Democrats -- not what you’d expect if the Republicans had some magic formula for success.
Meanwhile, the Republican predecessors were less successful than the Democratic predecessors in reducing unemployment, a theme that runs counter to the Examiner study.
John Robitaille’s Tweet that the unemployment rate had dropped in every state that elected a Republican governor is true as far as it goes.
But it is also true that the unemployment rate dropped in seven of the eight states that elected Democratic governors in 2010.
The fact that the unemployment rate dropped less than one-half of a percentage point more, on average, in those states that elected Republican governors hardly seems to support the Examiner headline of: "New Republican governors rapidly bringing down unemployment in their states." Particularly when experts question whether new governors can have any direct impact on an unemployment rate.
Considering the unemployment rate has fallen in 49 states in the last year, that’s stretching the statistic pretty thin.
We find Robitaille’s claim "is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context," our definition of Half True.
(Get updates from PolitiFactRI on Twitter. To comment or offer your ruling, visit us on our PolitiFact Rhode Island Facebook page.)
Breitbart.com, "Unemployment rate dropped in every state that elected a Republican gov. in 2010," July 9, 2012, accessed July 9, 2012
Examiner.com, "New Republican governors rapidly bringing down unemployment in their states," July 6, 2012, accessed July 9, 2012
National Conference of State Legislatures, "State Unemployment Rates," June 15, 2012, accessed July 9, 2012
Bls.gov, Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Unemployment in June 2012," accessed, July 9, 2012
Interview, John Robitaille, July 9, 2012
Email, Robert Elliott, Examiner.com, author of "New Republican governors rapidly bringing down unemployment in their states," July 10, 2012
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