Be skeptical of predictions about the outcome of the 2024 elections. I say this, because as someone who quite often is asked to make such predictions on TV or in columns like this one, I long ago came to realize there is every incentive for commentators to sound certain and very little cost to being wrong.
For the punditerati, that is a good thing, because we are wrong so frequently. But if you are actually trying to figure out what is likely to happen in next year’s elections, it can be a problem.
No doubt you are already familiar with the most popular rock-solid prognostications about the next 15 months in American politics: Donald Trump will definitely be the Republican nominee; Joe Biden will certainly head the Democratic ticket; Americans will continue not to fully appreciate all the good Biden has done; Bad news will be good news for Trump; Republicans will try to impeach Biden for having fathered Hunter; Democrats will clutch their pearls and take to their fainting couches in response to MAGA scorched earth tactics.
But, there are problems with all that.
First, the one thing we know about 2024 is that it will be unlike any election year in U.S. history. We have never had a major party candidate facing (currently) 91 felony counts and seven trials (and counting). We don’t know how a daily stream of revelations about Trump’s legal travails will impact the electorate. We don’t know how he will react to the process, and how the courts will react to him.
Quite apart from all that, the stakes for this election are higher than for any other since 1860. Trump has already stated he wants to radically remake the U.S. government in ways that will bring us closer to outright autocracy. The GOP wants to strip away crucial rights from women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. If MAGA has its way, America will be a much more illiberal society starting January 2025.
Apart from these factors, there are a host of developments that could take place between now and next November that would substantially impact or even alter the results of next Fall’s elections. The late former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might have called them the unknown unknowns. They represent developments we might not expect but which very well might have a significant impact on the outcome of the election.
Some are longshots. But all are plausible enough that they ought to leave us a bit more humble about our ability to predict our political future.
Here are 11 of them:
Trump is disqualified.
There has been a recent surge of activity by prominent legal scholars from across the political spectrum arguing that because Trump supported the Jan. 6 insurrection he is, by virtue of Article 3 of the 14th Amendment, ineligible to serve as president. Political activists are working to translate these opinions into action.
Whether these objections to Trump’s candidacy will work is unclear. Undoubtedly they will be tested in the courts. But the point here is that they could work and if they did, of course, they would throw the GOP nomination up for grabs.
There is a candidate health scare.
If Trump runs against Biden we will see a race with the highest average candidate age in history. Both men are roughly in the same chronological zip code, around 80, and that means that both are vulnerable to potential health reversals or scares.
Trump is obese, prone to fits of anger and is under enormous stress given his legal problems. Biden, though fit, could also get ill or stumble at an inopportune moment and, in either case, it is likely their health would immediately become a major issue. If they could no longer run or their recoveries kept them from the campaign trail for any protracted period of time, the negative political consequences could be significant.
Trump is convicted of one or more crimes.
Of all the possibilities on this list, this seems the most probable.
While most of the cases against the ex-president are likely to drag on for some time due to the stalling tactics of his lawyers, it is not inconceivable that one or two of them could go to trial before the election. The most likely of these might be the Jan. 6-related prosecution by special counsel Jack Smith.
We have never seen an ex-president on trial. We have never seen an ex-president convicted of serious felonies. We have never seen an ex-president running for reelection face serious jail time or have his voting rights stripped away because he is a convicted felon.
Yes, some of Trump’s supporters might still vote for him post-conviction. But almost half of all Republicans and most independents and Democrats would not. It would be a game-changer.
Trump could melt down and make his legal peril even greater.
No one who has observed Donald Trump for even a brief period of time would be surprised if in the course of the campaign and of his trials, he made his legal situation worse by violating terms of his pretrial release or even committing new crimes (the dude obstructs justice and intimidates witnesses like the rest of us breathe). Thus, although Trump has miraculously survived as a viable candidate while racking up indictments like a particularly brazen or inept mob boss, while his situation is bad, it could get even worse.
And who knows where the tipping point comes for MAGA nation? How many indictments for serious crimes is too many for even the sheeplike, characterless, flock of Republican Party leaders? Trump, by his behavior in the wake of his recent indictments, seems almost determined to find out.
A new candidate could enter the GOP race and catch fire.
Currently Trump leads the GOP field by a massive amount. Not only is that shocking given his record of crime, corruption, and general odiousness, but it is a reflection on the pathetically low quality of the pool of candidates who are “running against” Trump. (I added the quotation marks because clearly some of the field—like former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley or South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott—may be running to be Trump’s vice presidential running mate, which is remarkable given his efforts to promote mob violence against his last veep.)
But what if a Trump candidacy seems more problematic and the opportunity to defeat him seems clearer or the only way toward a possible GOP victory? What if that leads someone like Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin or Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to enter the race? Yes, Youngkin is just the country club version of the rest of the GOP throng. But authoritarians in fleece vests could be appealing to a broader cross section of the country than spray-tanned serial criminals. GOP donors of note are already considering this scenario so it can’t be ruled out.
Trump flees the country.
Ok, ok, I get it. This seems outlandish. Trump even took to Truth Social to make fun of the idea. But if Trump faces actual prison time, do you think it won’t cross his mind?
He has his own plane. He has friends overseas. He has money. Would the Secret Service, with its shoddy track record of late, even stop him from going? Certainly, it can’t be ruled out. After all, Trump has even fantasized out loud about his desire to be in some country other than the U.S.
An extremist act of violence.
With all the talk of weaponizing aspects of government, the real clear and present danger to America remains actual weapons—especially when they are in the hands of right-wing extremists. To just name a few recent incidents, there have been threats against judges in the Trump cases, against President Biden, and random acts of violence committed by right-wing nuts who were triggered by something as benign as a rainbow flag. This is our new and deeply troubling reality.
As we get closer to the election, as the Trump trials get more and more attention, as the potential for a big MAGA defeat rises, who knows what we can expect? The only certainty, and in this case it is a certainty, is that more violence is in store—and some of it potentially could have major political and social consequences.
Intensified foreign election interference.
Vladimir Putin has only one real hope to salvage his disastrous war in Ukraine: The reelection of the “apple of his eye” Donald Trump.
Does that mean the Russian leader is likely to pull out all the stops in support of Trump? It seems highly likely. Whether that would constitute more disinformation or even more “active measures” we can only speculate now. But not to expect and prepare for such intervention would seem downright irresponsible.
A sudden major turn in the war in Ukraine or in Russia’s leadership.
The war in Ukraine may be distant to most Americans now, but if there were notable Russian gains, Republicans would surely use them as a political cudgel with which to beat up on Biden foreign policy.
Admittedly, that seems unlikely given the fact that the Biden administration has forged an excellent record in Ukraine. But wars are volatile by nature and setbacks can happen in the blink of an eye.
We need to be aware that Russia, for example, has targeted Ukrainian leader Volodomyr Zelenskyy. Similarly, of course, we know Putin’s grip on leadership has been challenged recently and were there to be political turmoil in Russia it would pose both a big new challenge for the Biden team—and might very well distract or eliminate an important source of support for Trump.
A natural disaster.
This summer has seen devastating and, in many cases, unprecedented natural disasters worldwide—including in the U.S. As extreme weather continues to batter us, the possibility of a major disaster or series of disasters that could impact everything from the political standing of affected leaders—to the ability of voters to participate in elections—is a real one.
The usual disruptive suspects.
A bad turn in the economy (or a very good one) could certainly impact this coming election cycle. So too could an unexpected military crisis (see Iran or the straits of Taiwan). These x-factor or “black swan” events loom as spoilers over every set of predictions we might make. They remain a factor here.
These 11 examples are, of course, merely illustrative. We also know the Supreme Court is capable of making decisions that inflame electorates (see Dobbs) and that pollsters regularly misgauge the national mood resulting in seeming surprises (that really are just evidence that the pollsters got it wrong).
And then there are the real unknown unknowns, the wild developments that even speculative columns like this one are unwilling to address. Take for example the recent revelations about aliens.
After all, if they are true and they have seen the mess we are making of things here on this earth, surely they must have considered and could be planning to act on the notion that we are long overdue for a planetary makeover.