The late David Lawrence, who practically invented the Washington political column, developed a widely accepted rule of thumb covering every U.S. president from Woodrow Wilson to Richard M. Nixon:
Absent a major overriding concern such as a war, presidential elections are decided largely on "pocketbook" issues. That is, which candidate do most voters feel will better improve their personal economic situations.
The word "feel" is an important part of the Lawrence Rule. Do voters feel contented or discontented? Feelings are about emotions, not necessarily about facts. Facts are hard. Emotions are easy.
Politicians in both parties know and understand the Lawrence Rule, which is why, in its early stages, the race between President Barack Obama and his putative Republican challenger Mitt Romney is focused sharply on pocketbook issues.
With unemployment remaining high and recovery from the 2007-2009 recession still tenuous, Mr. Romney misses few occasions to lay the blame at Mr. Obama's feet. In a May 23 interview with Time magazine, Mr. Romney said, "He just doesn't have a clue what to do to get this economy going. I do."
The Obama campaign, in return, misses few chances to tie Mr. Romney to the disastrous Republican economic policies over the past 30 years. Last week, David Axelrod, the president's political strategist, attacked Mr. Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts between 2003 and 2007. "[W]hen it comes to Mitt Romney and his economic philosophy the facts are clear — it didn't work then, and it won't work now," Mr. Axelrod wrote.
Voters will be sick of this by November, if they aren't already. The diligent will do their homework; many of the rest will rely on their feelings.
This helps explain the results of a Washington Post/ABC News poll published May 24. Middle-class white voters who acknowledge that they are struggling to maintain their financial positions — as good a definition of pocketbook issues as there is — preferred Mr. Romney 58 percent to 32 percent. Seven in 10 of these voters lacked a college diploma; 31 percent described themselves as Republicans, 27 percent as Democrats.
The temptation is to regard these people as what political operatives call "low-information voters," a nice way of saying "clueless." To think that Mr. Romney, a beneficiary of and advocate for the same economic policies that brought on the great recession and record income inequality, can fix the economy is to think O.J. Simpson can find the real killers.
But these middle-class voters, particularly those with less ability to compete in the "knowledge economy," are smart enough to know that something is dreadfully wrong and Barack Obama is the guy in charge. They may be motivated by social issues like abortion or traditional marriage. Whatever the reason, they are the very definition of "discontented."
Fortunately for Mr. Obama, he no longer has to win a majority of them to win an election. The new Democratic coalition, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, is well-educated, socially liberal whites and working-class blacks and Hispanics. Mr. Obama needs only to hold Mr. Romney's edge among white working-class voters to 12 or 15 points.
If this is true, then maybe the Lawrence Rule needs a new coda: In today's divided America, it's not just the pocketbook that's important, but the color and education of the person holding the pocketbook.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.