Warning: Wrenching unemployment in the next primary states

The Republican presidential race has moved away from states with relatively low unemployment – 5.7 percent in Iowa and 5.2 percent in New Hampshire – to states where the hunt for a job is a daily heartache, especially for older workers.

Suck in your breath: South Carolina has 9.9 percent unemployment, Florida 10 percent and Nevada 13 percent. Those three states combined have shed more than 1 million jobs since 2008. But even those numbers may understate the problem. “A lot of people have quit looking or are under-employed,” says David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University.

Woodard, an astute observer of the politics of the South for two decades, went to a rally for Rick Santorum recently and was struck that he ignored the federal deficit and the economy – the two top issues for South Carolina voters – and instead focused on issues like gay marriage and abortion.

On the other hand, there might be no gain in reminding people how awful the economy is. Or in making a statement that could sound so outrageous when plucked out of context, as Mitt Romney recently did: “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” Even with the proper context (see video), it only reinforced the picture of Romney as a millionaire whose “unemployment” is a choice while he runs for president.YouTube Preview Image

Woodard expects a South Carolina primary turnout of mostly older voters, as it was in 2008. The difference between then and now is the mood: Voters are surly. “It’s really apparent that it’s a very despondent and angry electorate,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this–a combination of the economy and fear.”

Obama has his work cut out, too. No president since World War II has won re-election when the unemployment rate was 8 percent or higher.

The calendar: South Carolina primary is Jan. 21, Florida Jan. 31 and Nevada Feb. 4.