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Effect of Jobs Numbers on Presidential Race Is Uncertain

Friday’s jobs report was a weak one — with August’s job growth more in line with the tepid growth of the spring than the stronger numbers in July or over the winter months.

Furthermore, job-growth numbers for May and June were revised downward slightly, and manufacturing jobs — a measure that Democrats touted at various points during their convention this week in Charlotte, N.C. — fell by 15,000.

Politically, however, it is less certain that the report is going to matter that much. The unemployment rate declined for superficial reasons, which makes for a gentler headline for President Obama.

Perhaps more important, the report did not change the basic story of an economy that is experiencing subpar growth but is in recovery rather than recession.

The jobs numbers are subject to a fair amount of statistical noise; on average, the monthly job-growth number misses the market’s expectation by about 70,000 jobs. As a rough rule, the jobs numbers might have to be off about that much in one direction or another to tell a substantially different economic story, which in this case would have meant fewer than about 60,000 jobs being created or more than about 190,000.

Instead, the government reported that 96,000 jobs were added in August, weaker than consensus expectations that about 135,000 jobs would be created.

The degree of uncertainty in measuring jobs is underscored by the difference between the government’s report, which showed that 103,000 private-sector jobs were created July, and a separate report released on Thursday by the firm ADP Employer Services, which had 201,000 private-sector jobs added instead.

Interpretation of the report is further complicated by the fact that it could increase the likelihood of a renewed round of quantitative easing programs from the Federal Reserve. For this reason, investors saw the report as more of a wash, with stock prices little changed early on Friday.

In certain respects, the August report represented the alter ego of the July jobs report, in which payrolls grew somewhat faster than expected, but the unemployment rate ticked upward. In August, the unemployment rate, which is calculated through a separate government survey than the survey of business that produces the job-growth numbers, fell to 8.1 percent from 8.3 percent. The decline in the unemployment rate occurred because of a decline in labor-force participation, not because of a decline in the number of unemployed.

The July report did not seem to have much impact on the polls, despite being better than expected.

However, this report had been even more highly anticipated than usual because of its timing immediately after the Democratic convention. To the extent that it affects the way that the conventions are perceived and portrayed by the news media, it could reduce some of Mr. Obama’s post-convention buzz. Democrats seemed to be at a high point following Bill Clinton’s speech on Wednesday night; this will be a bit of a comedown for them.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.