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By Dave Umhoefer March 26, 2012

Tommy Thompson says Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was the lowest in the nation when he was governor

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson loves talking about about the good old days of Wisconsin’s economy as he runs in the GOP primary for an open U.S. Senate seat.

Amid continuing high unemployment in the Badger State and across the nation, Thompson often redirects voters to the mid- to late-1990s.

"We created 740,000 jobs – can you imagine that? – a record for the state!" Thompson proclaimed in a March 3, 2012 speech at a party caucus meeting in Sauk County. "The state was in bad shape, and we turned it completely around. Our unemployment dropped down to 2.1 percent … (and was) the lowest in the country for 40 consecutive months. The lowest in the country!"

In his familiar cheerleading style, he added: "Then, we were so good, people were so excited, we went to the Rose Bowl and we won three times!"

Wisconsin’ economic success in Thompson’s time -- as well as gridiron glory in Pasadena -- is well-established. The Badgers won all three Rose Bowl trips during Thompson’s era, and not once during his governor’s tenure (1987 to 2001) did unemployment rise to the February 2012 mark of 6.9 percent.

But did the state really lead the nation in shrinking unemployment -- and for more than three years?

We turned to the official scorekeeper of labor market performance, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The numbers showed some things for Thompson to crow about.

But on the specific claim, it is more along the lines of eating crow.

When Thompson won the job, the small-town lawyer and legislator inherited a tough -- but dramatically improving -- unemployment picture. Four years before his election, unemployment peaked at 11.5 percent in January 1983, but it had fallen to 6.6 percent as he took office.

Under Thompson, the rate dropped for three more years, jumped around for a couple, then dropped slowly for seven years before heading back up in his last full year, 2000. This trend line mirrored the national one.

The Wisconsin unemployment rate was 3.9 percent as Thompson left in February 2001 for a cabinet post in President George W. Bush’s administration -- an improvement over that 6.6 mark in his first month as chief executive.

(Historical footnote: it would climb to 5.3 percent within 10 months after he departed.)

In his Sauk County speech, Thompson said unemployment dropped all the way down to 2.1 percent.

But the most commonly used official figures show Wisconsin’s low was 3.0 percent, achieved in six different months during that time.

That’s according to seasonally adjusted figures, which BLS officials told us are preferred for month-to-month comparisons. In addition, Wisconsin governors have long relied on and emphasized the seasonally adjusted figures when announcing unemployment figures.

In short, they are treated as the official numbers.

Even Thompson, as he left office, used the seasonal numbers, saying the low point in his tenure was around 3 percent, according to media coverage at the time.

When asked about the claim, Thompson’s campaign pointed to data that is not seasonally adjusted. The rate was 2.0 percent in September 1999, according to a Thompson administration press release from December of 1999. However, the federal data shows a 2.4 percent unadjusted rate for that month, likely because figures are preliminary when announced, and later get updated.

So the 2.1 percent figure doesn’t hold up.

Now let’s examine Thompson’s national comparison.

Was Wisconsin No. 1?

We couldn’t find a single month -- much less 40 straight months -- in which Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was lowest among the states.

To be sure, its rate was in the very bottom tier for most of the 1990s -- bottom five or 10, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows.

But Nebraska and the Dakotas consistently beat Wisconsin’s numbers throughout the decade. And Minnesota, Iowa and Indiana -- other Midwestern states -- put up lower figures when Wisconsin was its best in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

Indeed, this held true even when the data was not seasonally adjusted.

Reacting to our findings, a campaign official said Thompson actually was referring to the city of Madison when he said "lowest in the nation." The campaign also noted the state’s unemployment rate was below the national average for well over 40 months.

But Thompson cited a statewide number in his claim. And he didn’t say below the average. He said lowest.

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Featured Fact-check

In a speech in Sauk County, Thompson contended Wisconsin’s unemployment rate dipped to 2.1 percent and was lowest in the nation for more than three years running when he sat in the governor’s chair.

Federal statistics clearly refute the "lowest in the nation" claim, and the 2.1 percent is on target only if you cite preliminary numbers from a less-preferred statistical method.

We rate this statement False.

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Tommy Thompson says Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was the lowest in the nation when he was governor

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