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Seven wild plot twists that could upend the 2024 election

Raise your hand if you dread the long and arduous journey to Election Day 2024. Then wave if you are prematurely exhausted by a presidential race in which two stubborn men born in the 1940s refuse to retire and are itching for a rematch — and in which, for the one man to win, the other probably must be on the ballot.

Most registered voters cringe at the thought of a second Joe Biden versus Donald Trump contest. According to Monday’s Monmouth University poll, 52 percent of Republicans are “not at all enthusiastic” about former President Trump becoming the Republican presidential nominee, and 53 percent of registered Democrats feel the same about President Biden.

Election Day is 12 months away — a century in political dog years and certainly enough time for something completely unexpected to alter the status quo.

In the past, unforeseen and often tragic events have radically changed the trajectories of presidential campaigns. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks transformed the nation, sent the U.S. to war, and surely reelected President George W. Bush in 2004.

In September 2008, a national economic meltdown sparked a global financial crisis two months before Election Day. A weak and uncertain reaction from GOP nominee John McCain sealed the defeat of his declining campaign, resulting in Barack Obama (D) winning an impressive 365 to 173 Electoral College victory.

Election year 2020 brought the COVID-19 crisis, and the U.S. economy experienced an unprecedented shutdown. According to post-election data, voters cited President Trump’s handling of the pandemic as the leading issue contributing to his defeat.

Still unknown is whether the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot will help Biden’s reelection prospects if Trump is his opponent. Nevertheless, Biden’s campaign is touting “preservation of democracy” as an anti-Trump theme. In a recent speech, Biden said, “The sacred task of our time … is democracy survives and thrives, not be smashed by a movement more interested in power than a principle.”   

In the 1960s, tragic, unforeseen events transformed the 1964 and 1968 presidential elections. First, on Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn into office and a year later won a landslide against conservative Republican nominee Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater.

Then Johnson dropped a political bombshell on March 31, 1968, withdrawing from his reelection campaign seven months before the November election. Incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination but was defeated by former Vice President Richard Nixon on Nov. 5, 1968.

Currently, as a backdrop to the 2024 presidential cycle, this week illustrates the instability of the national political landscape. Exhibit A: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was just removed from office — the first fired Speaker in American history. Exhibit B: In New York, a presiding judge issued a gag order to the leading GOP presidential nominee, former President Donald Trump, during his $250 million civil fraud trial.  

What’s cooking is pressure from a steaming cauldron of instant media (real and fake), extreme polarization and a hotter world where a major war is underway. Such an explosive recipe is bound to produce some kind of cataclysmic event — perhaps one of the following.

1. One of the two candidates dies or is forced to withdraw for health, legal, scandal, impeachment conviction or reasons unimagined. This is not really so far-fetched for two men at such advanced ages, one of whom is facing four indictments, but who is even considering it as a possibility?

2. A terrorist attack occurs on par with Sept. 11, 2001. Depending on the circumstances, such an attack could hurt or help Biden’s reelection, since changing leaders during a national crisis could be perceived as distracting.

3. An international incident or an escalation of an existing conflict demands a U.S. military response. Suddenly, foreign policy takes center stage. The U.S. is at war, resulting in a massive shift of public opinion away from domestic issues. Moreover, the conflict impacts the foundation of the U.S. economy. Think of China attacking Taiwan, disrupting the microchip supply chain. Imagine Russia using a nuclear device in Ukraine. Or, Ukraine falls, and Putin invades a NATO country. A military draft could potentially be instituted if the all-volunteer forces need boosting.

4. Close to the election, a crippling, prolonged cyberattack on critical infrastructure leaves the U.S. exposed and vulnerable. Basic energy and communications services are cut off and millions are left in both a literal and an information blackout.

5. Domestic terrorists launch attacks, either in response to the incarceration of Donald Trump or in response to his renomination.   

6. Using artificial intelligence, domestic or foreign players create “deep fakes” close to the election, wreaking havoc on campaign messaging that voters believe is authentic.

7. Given the unpopularity of Trump and Biden, a third-party candidate catches fire and gains support above 20 percent. It’s not that crazy — a new Gallup poll found that 63 percent of voters support a third party in theory. This could be Ross Perot only bigger. But who is this person who could become relevant as a third-party nominee?

Or perhaps it will be something else entirely.

Either way, it’s going to be a chaotic ride to Nov. 5, 2024. Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected.

Myra Adams served on the creative team of two GOP presidential campaigns, in 2004 and 2008. Follow her on Twitter @MyraKAdams.

Tags Barry Goldwater George W. Bush Hubert Humphrey Joe Biden John F. Kennedy John McCain Kevin McCarthy Lyndon Johnson Richard Nixon