Maybe it will be smooth sailing to the U.S. elections on Nov. 3, with no upsets or surprises (bear with me here 😃). Front-runner Joe Biden will win the Democratic nomination, as the polls suggest, and face off against President Trump in a tight contest. Voters will have to weigh a decent Trump economy against Trump’s penchant for disorder, even though nothing bad has really come of it.
Or, maybe chaos will erupt, with game-changing developments that completely alter the picture. Here are 6 possible wild cards that could change the nature of the 2020 race.
Iran. Is it over? Not by a long shot. Trump seems to have won a round, given the relatively weak Iranian response to the Jan. 2 killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, in a U.S. airstrike near the Baghdad airport in Iraq. The Jan. 7 Iranian missile attack on two U.S. bases in Iraq caused no American casualties, perhaps because Iran telegraphed the plan, allowing time to prepare. Both sides signaled an intent to deescalate afterward. Markets rejoiced.
But that may just be the conventional part of Iran’s retaliation plan. Iran also practices “asymmetric” warfare—terrorist attacks, covert raids, cyberhacks—that it doesn’t necessarily claim responsibility for. And security experts think Iran could have something in the works for later this year. Whether an Iranian attack of some kind would hurt or help Trump’s reelection odds depends on how it happens and how Trump responds. An Iranian attack might unify Americans against a common enemy and boost Trump’s standing. Or it could embarrass Trump, if it makes him look unprepared.
It’s not just Iran. Terrorism is always a threat, and Iran is not the only possible perpetrator. The Islamic State isn’t dead yet, and the U.S.-led campaign against the terrorist group has been suspended amid Trump’s escalation with Iran. That’s not good. There are military threats outside the Middle East as well, on the Korean peninsula, in the South China Sea and of course in Ukraine. Some dictator or regional bully might think the runup to the U.S. election is a fine time to test Trump’s mettle.
John Bolton. Trump’s former national security advisor is playing hide and seek with Congress, first resisting calls to testify in the House impeachment proceedings but then saying he would testify if called during the Senate trial. Put this grandstanding aside. Whether he testifies or not, Bolton has a book coming out before the election, and if he wants to say anything that could damage Trump, he’ll say it. Bolton is important because he was in a key position to know if Trump’s attempted shakedown of Ukrainian officials—for which the House impeached him—harmed U.S. national security interests. Bolton probably won’t change the storyline, but he could provide details that further incriminate Trump.
Trump’ tax returns. The Supreme Court is finally going to decide whether the House of Representatives and the Manhattan district attorney have the right to subpoena Trump’s financial records. The court will likely decide by June, and the decision will be final. The legal case for releasing the records seems to be strong, though the court has a conservative majority and could vote Trump’s way for political reasons. Still, there’s a good chance we’ll know a lot more about Trump’s personal finances by election day.
Will it matter? Yes, if the returns show Trump’s personal tax liability is far lower than that of ordinary Americans. Generous tax breaks for real-estate developers make it possible Trump has paid little to no taxes in some years, even on income that could be hundreds of millions of dollars. The average effective tax rate for all Americans (excluding payroll taxes used to finance Social Security and Medicare) is 10.2%. All five top Democratic presidential candidates pay a higher rate than that, with Joe Biden topping the list at an effective tax rate of 35.8% in 2018. If Trump’s tax rate is 5% or less, it’ll look like he’s the one benefiting from a rigged system, not his political opponents.
More Trump misdeeds. Trump’s impeachment on two counts happened because he saw nothing wrong with using taxpayer dollars appropriated by Congress as a bribe he could use to compel the Ukrainian president to conduct a bogus investigation into Joe Biden. And Trump did this after the Mueller report detailed many other types of criminal or quasi-criminal Trump behavior. Is there more? Could very well be. It might not matter, but it would if it captured abusive behavior Americans can easily relate to, which the Ukraine abuses arguably did not.
Old hearts. Trump is 73 and apparently going strong, but he did visit the hospital for unexplained reasons on Nov. 16. On the Democratic side, front-runner Joe Biden is 77, Bernie Sanders is 78 and Elizabeth Warren is 70. The biggest disruption would be a health problem that pulled Trump or Biden from the race, since Sanders and Warren are longer shots for their party’s nomination. If Biden dropped out, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar might become the moderate favorite. If Trump weren’t running, Vice President Mike Pence would probably step up. William Weld’s chimerical campaign might suddenly seem visionary, and Nikki Haley might even charge into the race. A Bloomberg-Haley race, anyone?
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.