05/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gas Prices Predict Elections

And Senator Clinton knows it. It doesn't mean the issue will necessarily give her the lifeline she needs today, but if anything will, she's hit the right issue.

For the past forty years, the most predicitive economic indicator has been oil prices and how they affect consumers. This hasn't held true in every presidential election, like in 2004, where prices were sharply up from 2000 and Bush won re-election. Compared to other key indicators, though, like employment, consumer confidence, the stock market, Gross Domestic Product, and Gross National Product, it has been the case more times than any other economic factor that if a president starts a term with lower gas prices and ends with higher prices, he is in trouble.

Whether you believe Senator Clinton is pandering or playing politics by suggesting a gas tax holiday for the summer, she is playing the table with the criteria that historically matters most.

As Clinton said in the last debate between the two contenders for the democratic presidential nomination, "I may be a lot of things, but I'm not dumb."

Clinton's strange bedfellow on this issue is Senator McCain. While Clinton suggests that eliminating gas taxes for the summer would hurt oil companies, the reality is that federal and state governments receive the money from gasoline taxes.

In Obama's strategic corner appears to be the long-term appearance of this issue. Clinton, who is behind in the delegate count, has shifted into a general election strategy mode by necessity. Her now-famous boxing gloves are off, and today is do or die for her.

Obama, ahead in the delegate count, could also be knocked out today. But if he prevails today, by beating expectations, (which now hold that he must win North Carolina by five percentage points and not lose Indiana by more than five,) the gas tax holiday may be just what he needs to tie Senator McCain in knots in the Fall.

The key difference in the general election is this: its one big national OPEN primary. Party affiliation doesn't matter, delegate counts don't matter, and the main comparison won't be over the styles of two candidates with many issue positions in common, but two candidates with the most critical issues and the direction of the country in contrast.

Obama's position that the gas tax holiday is "a dishonest approach to a real problem," will resonate with non-partisans . "Bill Clinton in 2000 said it wouldn't help consumers," Obama said on the stump. "Hillary Clinton's own staff said this is political and would probably not affect consumers" .

In going against economists on this gas tax issue, McCain is increasing his vulnerability with both fiscal conservatives and independent voters. McCain needs them both to win. If Obama gets past today, he has emerged as the true "outsider" among the three candidates left. Ironically, what may work for Clinton today could scuff McCain up in the Fall.