Election 2012: Variables for November: What Could Happen?

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the University of Chicago, March 19, 2012, left, and President Barack Obama in Osawatomie, Kan., Dec. 6, 2011.Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the University of Chicago, March 19, 2012, left, and President Barack Obama in Osawatomie, Kan., Dec. 6, 2011.

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?"

Israel and Iran

Foreign policy differences are unlikely to determine who wins in November. The economy is the most important issue to voters, and after that, other things like energy, immigration and social issues typically rank higher than foreign affairs. But Obama and even Romney would be thrown into a different race if Israel strikes Iran, as some foreign policy analysts fear will happen, and even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned is possible.

In that scenario, Obama is the most vulnerable — his every reaction and response will be calculated and scrutinized, and probably critiqued by Romney. If oil prices rise, Obama will be on the defensive on the home front, too, in addition to deciding whether to send U.S. troops to defend Israel.

The best-case scenario for Obama is that he shows deft leadership, makes the calls that prove to be right and gets the country to rally around him. The worst case for him is that he stumbles or looks weak, effectively stripping away the foreign policy chops he earned by authorizing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Regardless, Romney's role is much less impactful, as he'd be simply reacting to the cues from the White House and standing to benefit from any missteps.

"President Obama's response would be very important at that point," Judy said. "It would be much more about Obama."

Terrorism or Natural Disasters

The most unpredictable of events could be the most unlikely, but also the most dangerous for Obama politically.

The 9/11 attacks initially caused Americans to stand behind Bush, bringing about a sense of unity. If another attack were to happen before the election, while some Republican critics might argue that Obama didn't protect the country, it's more likely that people will come together as they did in 2001, strategists say.

"There's also the rally-around-the-president effect," Fleischer said.

A natural disaster, though, could be more delicate. "It's the response to things like that that make or break careers," Judy said.

The memory of Katrina, and Bush's struggling response to it, is still fresh in many Americans' minds. Bush's second term was marred by the devastating storm, though some governors in affected states who responded swiftly were rewarded with positive approval ratings.

Obama hasn't bungled any responses to natural disasters, including the BP oil spill, Hurricane Irene, and tornadoes and flooding in the South.