The McCain Strategy: It's the Perception of the Economy, (Stupid)

07/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thinking about heading to the beach for the holiday weekend and expecting to pay almost $200 for gas over the course of a few days made me recall a conversation I had two weeks ago with McCain Campaign Manager, Rick Davis. It was at a party in his honor, so politeness and insider small talk was seemingly the order of the day.

Yet, when I was talking to Davis, he was charming, friendly and eager not to be caught in yet another discussion of Republican woes and summer houses. We actually discussed campaign strategy. Bob Woodward and I were standing with him and Woodward said "So Rick, does it all really come down in the end for McCain to Iraq and how we are doing there in the fall?" Rather than respond with vagaries or deflect the question, Davis actually talked us through his thinking. (Note to newbie journo self: hang around Woodward at Washington parties -- people like to tell him things).

Davis noted that with the political conventions taking place so late in the summer, the timetable for voters thinking about the election would be greatly affected by their summer experience. If they felt relief at having survived the summer financially, Davis reasoned, then their worst fears about the economy hadn't come to pass and they would "vote on national security" which favored McCain. Yet if by the end of the summer, they felt drained from gas prices and felt afraid and vulnerable that it was getting worse, then Iraq would fall away and that favored Obama.

His conclusion about how the issues will drive the campaign was unremarkable. But how he got there is curious. First of course, is that under the Davis scenario the outcome isn't much affected by the candidates or the campaigns. The most important factors were external. The second remarkable thing was that Davis was talking about the "perception" of the economy, not the actual economy itself.

I am pretty certain that the perception of the war in Iraq will continue to be troublesome for a majority of Americans by early September. And I am equally certain that the "perception" people have of the economy in early September will not hinge on a false sense of security due to a nice summer vacation. Economic security means a college education, health insurance, and most importantly hope for the future. People get that. Even if John McCain doesn't.