There is a widespread sense of frustration – voters have to make the same choice, and everything seems set in a familiar pattern. Even the polls seem to point to a race close to victory.
But as any historian will tell you, anything can happen in a year to turn a race on its head. In 1979, the Iran hostage crisis likely cost President Jimmy Carter his re-election. In 2020, a pandemic changed the face of the country.
Here are four surprises that could change the course of this election.
What if an independent candidate gains popularity?
If you are not a Republican or a Democrat, your chances of becoming President of the United States are more than slim. But third-party candidates have flipped elections in the past and could do so again in 2024.
In 1992, wealthy businessman Ross Perot won 19% of all votes cast and is often credited with costing the Republican presidential victory. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won 97,488 votes in Florida, helping George W. Bush win the swing state. Some argue that Green Party candidate Jill Stein hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016.
This election may lead to such an upset. A senior American politician has told British media that the low approval ratings of both President Joe Biden and Republican front-runner Donald Trump could open the door for more players, and a recent Gallup poll suggests the same.
Two independent candidates have already entered the fray. Progressive activist Cornel West and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who recently left the Democrats. Before he passed, polls suggested he could win the support of about 20% of Democratic voters. Now out of a party, Kennedy, who appeals to conspiracy-minded voters, could take votes away from Donald Trump, too.
This election is likely to be tight, so even a few votes for a third-party candidate could make a big difference.
What if one of them die before election day?
Yes, we hear it often – President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are old. On Inauguration Day in 2025, Biden will be 82, Trump 78. There is no indication that either is in ill health, but what if something happens to them on the eve of the election?
Well, the answer depends on when.
If they become seriously ill or die between now and New Year’s 2023, there are many candidates on both sides willing to compete for the nomination. But it gets more complicated as states finalize their primary votes.
If the worst happens in mid-October 2024, their name will still be on the national ballot. Under the US constitution, you can run for office while you’re dead, even if you can’t take the oath.
It’s happened before: In 2000, Mel Carnahan was running for the US Senate when he died in a plane crash en route to a campaign event. He was elected posthumously and his widow Jean served until a special election was held in 2002.
If the winning candidate dies after Election Day but before taking office, the vice president will be sworn in instead. They will then have to nominate a vice president to replace him, who must be approved by Congress.
It’s extremely complicated, so let’s hope all the candidates are healthy!
If a foreign war escalates?
President Biden is running for re-election at a time covered by international crises – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s offensive against Hamas. Not to mention China’s ever-increasing military pressure on Taiwan’s airspace as a dangerous backdrop.
His team tried to capitalize on this politically by portraying him as a reliable commander-in-chief, and he received relatively good poll ratings for his handling of the two wars. But there are already troubling trends for the president’s campaign: not least a drop in support from the crucial core of young Democratic voters who are angered by Biden’s strong support for Israel as Palestinian casualties mount.
And if any of these wars spread beyond current borders, if Russia attacks a NATO member state, if armed groups allied with Iran join Hamas’s fight against Israel, it would change the calculus and derail the election year.
Will the US be drawn to the sidelines – where it now sits as a deterrent?
Would the international chaos hurt the prospects of his likely rival, Donald Trump? Or will Trump get a boost from voters sick of funding and — possibly — fighting foreign wars again?
Many factors are beyond their control, especially in the Middle East. This is not a good position for any presidential candidate to be in.
If Donald Trump goes to jail?
Trump faces 91 criminal charges in four separate trials that are likely to take place next year.
Maximum potential sentences amount to hundreds of years behind bars, but few legal experts believe that is likely even if he is convicted.
Trump’s lawyers tried hard and unsuccessfully to delay the trials until after the election. They know that winning the election would likely mean a four-year delay, since most legal opinions preclude criminal prosecution of a sitting president except through impeachment by Congress.
If he goes to jail before the election, it will have nothing to do with the question of whether he can win it.
The fact that he is a convicted felon does not prevent him from running for president – 100 years ago, a candidate collected nearly a million votes while behind bars. That would obviously hamper any campaign, but polls show many Republican voters won’t be swayed.
If elected from prison, Trump could pardon all federal convictions, but if he is jailed on either of the two state cases, he would not have the power to do the same. This raises the odd possibility of being president while a prisoner.
We are in truly unprecedented territory, and even the best legal experts in the US are scratching their heads.