WASHINGTON - In in the latest sign that the economy is surging at year's end, unemployment claims have dropped to the lowest level since April 2008, long before anyone realized that the nation was in a recession.

Claims fell by 4,000 last week to 364,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. It was the third straight weekly drop. The four-week average of claims, a less volatile gauge, fell for the 11th time in 13 weeks and stands at the lowest since June 2008.

While the economy remains vulnerable to threats, particularly a recession in Europe, the steady improvement in the job market is unquestionable.

Unemployment claims are a sort of week-to-week EKG for the job market. Except for a spike this spring, after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan hurt U.S. manufacturing, they have fallen steadily for a year and a half.

Claims peaked at 659,000 in March 2009. In the four years before the Great Recession, they mostly stayed between 300,000 and 350,000. That claims are edging closer to that range is a sign that the layoffs of the past three years have all but stopped.

The steady decline may also herald a further decline in the unemployment rate, which fell in November to 8.6 percent from 9 percent the month before. The December rate will be announced Jan. 6.

If unemployment claims keep declining, the unemployment rate might fall as low as 8 percent before the November elections, said Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at BTIG L.L.C., a boutique brokerage.

The presidential election will turn on the economy. Ronald Reagan holds the post-World War II record for winning a second term with the highest unemployment rate. He won in 1984 with unemployment at 7.2 percent.

Economists will also watch closely on Jan. 6 to find out how many jobs were added this month. It added at least 100,000 each month from July through November, the best five-month streak since 2006.

"When you fire fewer people, hiring unquestionably follows," Greenhaus said. He expects employers to create as many as 200,000 jobs per month if the trend continues.

In another encouraging report Thursday, the Conference Board's index of leading economic indicators rose strongly in November.