U.S. stock markets took a beating today. Coming off a relatively soft day yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) plummeted 168 points, ending the day 1.3% lower. Other American markets didn't fare any better. The tech-oriented Nasdaq and S&P 500 ended firmly in the red as well, dropping 2.3% and 1.6% respectively.

The culprit? A disappointing jobs report on non-farm payrolls from the Labor Department. Last month, the U.S. economy added only 115,000 jobs, leaving the official unemployment rate sitting stubbornly at 8.1%. The panicked selling forced a spike in volatility as well. The market's "fear gauge," the VIX (INDEX: ^VIX), spiked sharply today as well, rising 9.1% as investors take an increasingly skeptical view about the strength of the U.S. recovery many had hoped would accelerate in 2012.

Around the markets
Individual stocks didn't fare much better. Tech companies largely led the Dow's southbound march. Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO), Microsoft, and Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) all shed more than 2% during today's trading. Financial stocks also fell precipitously, with Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) and JPMorgan Chase each shedding nearly 3%.

The Dow started off the year hot, having risen a total of 8.1% year to date. However, coming off an earnings season that's had its share of ups and downs, the Dow has been effectively flat over the past month. In fact last week, U.S. economic growth slowed in the first quarter of 2012. People are clearly concerned over the strength of the U.S. economy, and for good reason.

What it all means
While it's certainly easy to get lost in the negativity, it's important to keep in mind that the economy is expanding, albeit slowly, and that trend does look poised to continue. Coming into an election year, investors certainly have a lot to be hopeful for. In fact, the Fool thinks it's identified four stocks that could explode after the election. We made it free for our readers, so access your copy today.

Andrew Tonner held no financial position in any of the companies mentioned in this article. You can follow Andrew and all of his Foolish writing on Twitter at @AndrewTonner. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Intel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Microsoft and Intel and creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.