By Alexander Bolton - 06/03/12 10:00 AM EDT
Ten potential game changers loom over the presidential race and could determine whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wins in November, according to political experts.
Both campaigns and their networks of allies have plotted strategy for months but as the military adage holds, no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
“Does Obama blink? Does the late night call come and the caller gets voicemail?” said Terry Holt, who served as a strategist to the 2000 and 2004 Bush-Cheney campaigns. “Voters still have questions about Obama’s decisiveness and ability to be a strong leader. That’s his vulnerability.
“Though we have suffered through a grinding recession we have not had moments where Obama was severely tested,” he said.
Here are ten game changers that could sway the race to Obama or Romney:
European financial meltdown
The biggest obvious risk to Obama’s re-election is a financial crisis in Europe that could drag down the U.S. economy with it.
A popular backlash in Greece, Spain and France against German-led austerity programs has cast doubt on European leaders’ ability to avert a financial chain reaction that could send world stock markets plummeting and paralyze U.S. banks.
European officials have portrayed Greece’s possible exit from the Euro currency as manageable but since the intricate web of investments tied to Greece are largely hidden from public view, it is hard to know the impact with any certainty.
The U.S. economy has already borne the effect of reduced trade with Europe and domestic banks have had time to insulate themselves from an overseas financial collapse but a panic could send domestic markets reeling and hurt consumer confidence.
“The thing that would damage us is if investors panic as a result of the Euro exit and you saw the stock market decline and hit U.S. wealth and capacity to spend,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a senior economic advisor to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign. “This election is going to be about the economy. People are informing their views starting about now. We’re in the three to six months that really matter.”
Turmoil in domestic financial sector
The consensus opinion is that the U.S. has weathered the 2008 financial crisis but some Democratic strategists fear there remain unexploded landmines in the banking sector.
“A number of American banks have massive piles of toxic assets. Whether it’s Europe or anything else, if something happens to erode their financial positions, it could lead to a very negative spiral,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist. “I think there’s a lot more danger about the too-big-to-fail banks getting in trouble. The one I’m worried about the most is Bank of America.”
Consumer advocacy groups say Wall Street financial institutions still pose systematic risk to the economy, a threat they say was underscored by news JPMorgan lost at least $2 billion over the span of a few weeks on a reckless investment.
“Have we gone through a six-month period where we haven’t had a revelation of Wall Street mishandling something? I’m sure we’ll have another. If it’s a game changer depends on whether it’s big enough,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Progressive Congress, the foundation of the Congressional Progressive Congress.
Expansion of conflict in Syria
If violence in Syria escalates or spills into a wider regional conflict, it will put Obama in the difficult position of weighing military intervention against the risk of looking ineffective. Diplomatic moves have had little effect so far.
U.S. strategic interests could come under threat if the conflict expands to Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq.
“It really depends on how bad it gets. It depends on if it puts at risk gains in Iraq, if it puts at risk the stability of Lebanon. Those things are very important for the Middle East,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Romney has already criticized Obama’s Syria stance as a “policy of paralysis.”
Israeli military strike against Iran
Earlier this year, Defense secretary Leon Panetta warned Israel could strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. That could spark a regional war with immediate consequences for the presidential race.
Policy experts say Iran could retaliate by striking U.S. targets in the region or blocking commercial access to the Strait of Hormuz, an important shipping lane for oil. A resulting spike in oil prices would rattle the U.S. economy.
Obama could be faced with the prospect of having to defend Israel from an Iranian offensive or respond to attacks on U.S. forces.
Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said a disruption of oil supply would reverberate more intensely than a Syrian-provoked regional conflict.
“I don’t think Jordan and Syria fighting each other will impact the electorate all that dramatically. It would be different if Iran shuts down the Strait of Hormuz and gas goes to $7 a gallon,” he said.
Supreme Court strikes down 2010 healthcare reform law
Obama would be dealt a serious political blow if the Supreme Court strikes down his signature domestic achievement, the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
“On net it hurts Obama. It means a centerpiece of his administration is ruled unconstitutional,” said Steven Smith, an expert in American politics at Washington University in St. Louis. “The Republicans will be able to reinforce their argument that the administration diverted its attention from the economy to its pet causes.
“They will say it’s a major failure of his administration and it will be read that way by a lot of people,” he said.
Smith said the ruling could also put pressure on Romney to propose an alternative policy.
“There would be a lot of pressure on Romney to endorse those parts of it that need to be re-enacted, such as insurance reform.”
A terrorist attack would suddenly change the tone of the race and some Democratic strategists think it could unify the nation as the 9/11 attacks coalesced public opinion behind former President George W. Bush.
“A major terrorist attack could be an incredibly galvanizing moment in the campaign. You could see an immediate rally around the flag and everyone would see the president in a different way,” said Bennett of Third Way.
“It would be very difficult for Romney to attack the president if that were playing out in the electorate,” he added.
But Obama could also be held responsible for allowing an attack on his watch.
“The specter of another war or god forbid a terrorist attack that hits first order priorities could undermine one of Obama’s central strengths, his competence on foreign policy and national security,” said Democratic pollster Daniel Gotoff.
If natural disaster strikes, Obama’s response could be crucial.
The most likely event is a massive hurricane hitting Florida. In 1992, former President George H.W. Bush, in the midst of a re-election effort, was criticized for his response to Hurricane Andrew, which left a path of destruction through Florida.
“Bush mishandled the Florida hurricane in 1992,” said Lux, who worked on Clinton’s campaign. “We didn’t end up winning Florida but it tightened up Florida.”
Lux said a natural disaster could change the race “only if [the response] were completely botched.”
“If you [mess] it up, then absolutely it matters. If you handle it ok, it doesn’t,” he said.
Strategists say millions of dollars spent by outside political groups could shift the campaign narrative in unexpected ways.
If super-PACs become targets of controversy, they could hurt the candidates they are trying to help.
“Groups could run ads on behalf of one side or the other that are so controversial, so over-the-top that it impacts the race,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant.
Chamberlain, of Progressive Congress, said super-PACs could spark an angry voter backlash if they are caught accepting money from foreign sources or engaging in other shady practices.
“If we see a foreign government spending money on a super-PAC that would be a game changer,” he said.
Tad Devine, who served as senior advisor to Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 2004 campaign, said conservative groups could put Romney in the White House if they vastly outspend Obama and his allies.
“A game changer is getting outspent 2-1 or 3-1. That could really determine the outcome of the election,” he said. “It makes it a lot easier for Romney to win if he can go into more states and have multiples of media over the president.”
Democratic strategists say Gore’s debate performance against Bush in 2000 hobbled him. Gore’s audible sighs from behind the podium gave many voters a negative impression of him.
Four years later, Kerry tightened the race against Bush by winning the first debate.
“Debates are always game changers. If you kick somebody’s butt in a debate, that matters a lot. It changes votes. It changes media narratives,” said Lux, the Democratic strategist.
A candidate must demonstrate mastery over policy details, nimbly dodge attacks and counterpunch, and come across as likeable.
Gore’s sighs created a condescending impression. McCain’s refusal to look at Obama on the debate stage made him look petulant to some analysts.
Gaffes have always been game changers in presidential elections.
Devine, who cut his teeth working for former President Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, said Carter received a huge boost because of a devastating gaffe committed by then-President Gerald Ford.
Ford blew a hole in his credibility by claiming during a televised debate “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” a laughable assertion at a time when the Iron Curtain was still standing strong.
“Ford screwing up made him look completely out of touch. It showed Carter could be commander in chief at the height of the Cold War,” said Devine.
Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist, said: “A gaffe in a debate can be a game changer, like when Rick Perry could not remember the three cabinet departments he would eliminate.
“A large gaffe in a debate by either team could make a difference,” he added. “The debates are going to be a widely-watched prize fights.”