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Nine ways the 2024 campaign could go haywire

We don’t know much about the coming races despite all the noise

Former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a "Farmers for Trump" campaign event on July 7 in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a "Farmers for Trump" campaign event on July 7 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Getty Images)

Imagine: Without warning and with barely enough time for makeup, you are thrust onstage to have your say on a cable television pundit panel about the 2024 elections.

Chances are, despite your total lack of preparation, you would ace your cable cameo by merely reciting the conventional wisdom that is accepted by almost everyone in politics — aside from a few staffers for the trailing GOP presidential candidates.

“The way I see it,” you might begin confidently, “there’s almost no chance that Trump can be beaten for the nomination. That means that the nation will endure another close Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump election, focused on a few key states like Arizona and Wisconsin.

“Also, the Democrats will lose the Senate because of a terrible map with no GOP incumbent in trouble. The House is a different matter since, as fast as you can say ‘George Santos,’ the Democrats can bounce back into a majority with higher turnout in New York and California.”

Easy, wasn’t it? Rarely has so much premature certainty dominated the conversation a year before the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions.

The closest parallel is the summer of 1999, when both George W. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore held 2-1 national leads for their parties’ nominations. But in those days, the electoral map was volatile and there was far more ticket-splitting in congressional races.

In a desperate effort to inject some humility into political prognostication, I have created a list of plausible events that could upend the glib calculus about 2024.

These aren’t predictions. In fact, some of my brief scenarios are contradictory. They have been invented as a way of luring us out of our mental ruts about an election still more than 15 months away.

Wildcard event: Since the 2000 election, we have endured 9/11, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, a pandemic, an insurrection and a major land war in Europe. Are we certain we know what the voters will be obsessing about in the fall of next year?

Trump discovers gravity: Even Icarus eventually got hot under the collar. Maybe Trump’s troubles will begin to manifest themselves in a noticeable decline in the horse race polls against Biden. Or maybe the weight of the evidence in the almost certain coming indictments of Trump will finally break through. Republican primary voters don’t have to repudiate Trump personally. They just have to decide that he can’t win in 2024.

A surprise Republican nominee: Not since Richard Nixon in 1960 has anyone not an incumbent president glided to the nomination without a serious scare. Presidential primaries almost invariably produce surprises — whether it was the Rick Santorum out-of-nowhere boomlet in 2012 or Bernie Sanders’ political prowess in 2016. The pundits have probably already gotten it wrong in anointing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis early this year. But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t an opening for someone else.

A Biden landslide: America has not witnessed a true landslide since Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis carried only 10 states and the District of Columbia in 1988. But what if Trump’s threats and antics finally turn a major swath of swing voters against him? What if the Republican brand is so toxic on social issues that a non-Trump nominee can never get traction with younger voters or most women?

Trump turns rogue: We have seen what Trump does when he loses the White House. And we will probably learn more from the looming federal indictment of Trump for his conduct around Jan. 6, 2021. But we haven’t seen how Trump reacts if he loses the nomination. But one can imagine a GOP nominee facing a two-front war against Biden and the venom hurled from Mar-a-Lago.

Republican landslide: Any Republican who beats Trump for the nomination would be portrayed in the media as a giant killer. If that Republican — sorry, not you, Gov. DeSantis — could manage to play to the middle and downplay divisive social issues, it is conceivable that Biden’s age could work against him in a decisive fashion.

A 2024 Ross Perot: In late February 1992, Perot declared for president in a CNN interview and managed to get on the ballot in all 50 states. Despite his erratic performance, Perot got 19 percent of the vote. For all the current obsession with the third-party efforts by the centrist group No Labels, it is also easy to imagine an egotistical billionaire (is there any other kind?) deciding to exploit the lack of enthusiasm for a Biden-Trump rematch.

A Biden (or Trump) health scare: In September 2016, a 69-year-old Hillary Clinton almost collapsed at a public event and was revealed to have pneumonia. In early October 2020, Trump, then 74, was hospitalized for COVID-19 and his life may have been in jeopardy. Given the ages of Biden and Trump, it would not take much more than a bad case of laryngitis to touch off rumors that could panic voters.

Ticket-splitting returns: It doesn’t seem plausible at the moment, but maybe Senate and congressional candidates can find a way to transcend this hyper-partisan era. Sooner or later, someone is going to harness social media in a way that upends traditional voting patterns. Maybe 2024 turns out to be the year that a Josh Hawley, a GOP senator from Missouri, or a Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, suddenly finds himself vulnerable.

Yes, you can remind me about this column in October 2024 as we are locked into a tight Biden-Trump rematch and everything about the congressional races seems predictable. But I am willing to bet that we don’t know nearly as much about 2024 as we think we do.

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