NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
If the unemployment rate stays at current levels until the election, President Bush stands a much better chance at winning another four years in the White House, a job placement firm reported Monday.
In 10 of the last 14 elections, with some exceptions, the incumbent has been re-elected 71 percent of the time when the unemployment rate dropped below 5.6 percent from August until the election in November, according to Challenger, Gray, & Christmas.
The unemployment rate sank to 5.5 percent in July, even as hiring by employers slowed significantly.
"The economy is always an important issue in voters' minds, especially as it relates to the job market," CEO John Challenger said in a statement. "Most Americans do not pay much attention to gross domestic product growth, the strength of the dollar, inflation or other economic indicators."
People's perceptions about the strength of the economy come "almost exclusively" from whether they and their friends and neighbors can find work, he added.
But if unemployment averaged 5.6 percent or above from August to October, the challenging party took over, the firm said.
While most Americans watch the unemployment rate, that's not the most closely watched indicator of the health of the job market for many economists and investors.
Economists and many policy-makers traditionally pay more attention to payroll figures, compiled by the Labor Department in a separate survey of businesses, that show whether companies are adding or subtracting jobs.
The department's unemployment rate, generated from its survey of households, can fluctuate at times as people who were previously discouraged re-enter the work force.
That can tend to push the rate higher. Conversely, people sometimes take part-time jobs until they find full-time work, which can pull the rate lower, even in a relatively sluggish labor market.
After a prolonged period of weakness, payroll growth surged for three months last spring, but then slowed sharply in June and July, coming in well below economists' forecasts.
Another reading is due this Friday when the Labor Department reports on August payrolls and unemployment. That'll be the next to last job report before the Nov. 2 election.