In the fall of 2008, as the financial crisis erupted, John McCain suspended his campaign so he could deal with the trouble in Washington. Barack Obama said his campaign would go on. Their decisions were politically game-changing — Obama wanted to seize the opportunity to tie McCain to President Bush, and McCain wanted the politics to subside.
The financial crisis is a big reason that Obama won the election. Many experts said they didn't see the crisis coming, even though in retrospect, Wall Street analysts say the red flags were bright.
With more than four months until Election Day 2012, there are a few scenarios that could unfold just in time to give one of the candidates the advantage he needs to win. Then again, they might not. But here are some possibilities -- and in most cases, despite the scope, the candidates are unlikely to put their campaigns on the back-burner.
"Unless you're John McCain, campaigns don't get put on hold," said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary for George W. Bush.
Another Economic Crisis, Stemming From Europe
Who knows what's going to happen on the other side of the Atlantic? European leaders have been struggling with their debt crisis and causing uncertainty in financial markets, a problem that the G20 has addressed this week. They have said they're considering a proposal by the United States to control spiraling debt issues, but as leaders debated steps at the G20, the markets were tense.
Greece, of course, is also a huge variable. Even after its recent election, surprises from the new Greek leaders could ripple across the ocean. Obama has often cited the uncertainty in Europe — along with the tsunami in Japan — as factors out of his control that affect the U.S. economy. That won't change the reality that's felt, however, if the economy dips back into a recession.
"They've been trying to do this for a while, saying, 'Listen, a lot of this isn't my fault. I can't control Europe; I can't control Greece. I can't control the global market for gas prices,'" Dan Judy, a Republican strategist, said of the Obama campaign. "And of course, all that's true. And of course, it doesn't matter."
"If there's another recession in two or three months, he will carry the blame for that, whether he's directly to blame for that or not," Judy said. "People are already very, very nervous about the state of the economy."
On the Other Hand ...
The economy has been slow to recover, even though jobs are being added rather than lost. There will be only a handful of monthly jobs reports before the election, but if those Fridays produce better-than-expected data, count that as the best luck Obama could get.
Campaigns are all about optics, and at the beginning of this year, the Obama campaign was probably feeling pretty good when the jobs numbers from January showed massive gains. "The January jobs report: It's all good," read a headline in The Washington Post. "Job Gains Reflect Hope a Recovery Is Blooming," beamed The New York Times. "Good News for the Economy, Bad News for the Pessimists," declared Time.
Headlines like that for four months in a row and Obama won't need Mitt Romney to make gaffes about being rich.
"If things go that way for Obama over the next few months, then he's going to have a very good chance to win," Judy said.
When the Supreme Court Weighs In
The Supreme Court is due to decide whether Obama's health care law is constitutional. If the court says it is, nothing will change that much, other than supporters feeling validated and opponents being galvanized.
But if the high court throws out all or part of Obama's health care law, the president will have to explain to the country why a law that is already hotly contested and hard to define is unconstitutional. Republicans will have the chance to argue that if Obama is reelected, he'll have four more years to pass all sorts of laws without regard to whether they follow the Constitution.
"He's going to get a second look by voters on the health care issue," said Jill Alper, a veteran of six presidential campaigns. "What does he do in that moment? Does he give? Does he articulate a new path?"