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3 surprises that could upend the 2024 election

As everybody knows, the 2024 election features two geriatric candidates and unprecedented concerns about the physical and mental fitness of the nation’s next president. Few Americans would be surprised if Donald Trump or Joe Biden, or both of them, dropped out of the race for health reasons.

Other factors that fewer people are thinking about could upend the race too, and change the outlook for investors trying to gauge whether Democrat Joe Biden or Republican Donald Trump would be better for markets and the economy. Here are three of them:

This is always a risk, but security officials are now signaling unusually high levels of concern that a plot could be afoot. There’s particular focus on the southwest border, where terrorists may try to infiltrate the country amid the surge of migrants that have been showing up and trying to get in.

In April testimony before a House committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that during the last year, “We’ve seen the threat from foreign terrorists rise to a whole other level.” That happened, he said, after Hamas attacked Israel last fall and Israel retaliated with an all-out war, suggesting militants may be seeking to punish the United States for supporting Israel. “I’d be hard-pressed to think of a time where so many threats to our public safety and national security were so elevated all at once,” Wray warned.

In mid-June, eight people from Tajikistan who are reportedly affiliated with the Islamic State terrorist group were arrested in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. The Associated Press reported that they entered the country through the southwest border. On June 16, Rep Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said the United States was at “its highest level of a possible terrorist threat.” In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Graham Allison and Michael Morell pointed out that these were the same sorts of warnings public officials were making before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

A bloody terrorist attack is one of the few things that could change the arc of the election overnight. If it looked as if government negligence allowed terrorists to sneak in, it could doom President Joe Biden’s reelection bid. It could also have the opposite effect, with voters rallying behind Biden as they did with President George W. Bush in 2001.

Financial markets typically shake off terrorist attacks, but an attack tied to Islamic jihadists could easily trigger the wider Middle East war many analysts are worried about. That would disrupt a record run for the US stock market and the gradual return of inflation to normal levels. The 2024 election would morph from a referendum on the Biden economy to a question of which candidate has a better chance of extinguishing a world on fire.

Trump’s May 31 conviction on 34 counts of business fraud didn’t seem to change his standing in the polls by much. But that could change when a judge determines his sentence on July 11. “If Trump gets a sentence of prison, maybe that gives somebody who’s unsure the real pause,” political analyst Kristen Soltis Anderson said on a recent videocast with pollster Bruce Mehlman. “Is America staring down the prospect of putting a man in the White House who is also headed to jail? That might be a tougher pill to swallow for swing voters.”

New York, NY - May 31 : Former President Donald Trump walks off after speaking at a news conference from the lobby of Trump Tower the day after being found guilty on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first degree at Manhattan Criminal Court, in New York, NY on Friday, May 31, 2024. Trump became the first former president to be convicted of felony crimes as a New York jury found him guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election through hush money payments to a porn actor who said the two had sex. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump walks off after speaking at a news conference from the lobby of Trump Tower the day after being found guilty on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first degree at Manhattan Criminal Court, in New York, N.Y. on Friday, May 31, 2024. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images) (The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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The judge’s punishment options range from nothing at all to several years behind bars. A middle ground might be home detention, with Trump wearing an ankle bracelet so authorities will know if he goes somewhere he shouldn’t. That would create the surreal spectacle of Republicans nominating Trump as their presidential nominee at the GOP convention in Milwaukee on July 18, even though Trump’s criminal sentence prevents him from attending in person. Republican officials are reportedly making contingency plans for Trump to accept the nomination remotely, like a Zoom meeting attendee.

Televised debates can be decisive in close presidential elections since they’re the only time many voters will hear directly from each of the candidates. Strong debate performances and memorable lines helped John Kennedy win the White House as a challenger in 1960 and Ronald Reagan do the same in 1980. When Mitt Romney challenged incumbent Barack Obama in 2012, he jumped in the polls after a robust debate performance in early October. Obama came out swinging in the last and final debate, regaining lost ground.

Trump and Biden are scheduled for two debates, one on June 27 and another on Sept. 10. It goes without saying that if either candidate suffers an embarrassing senior moment before millions of primetime viewers, it could be curtains for his campaign. It could also go the other way, with, say, Biden scoring some clever and entertaining zingers, or Trump putting aside his familiar list of personal grievances and offering some fresh ideas for solving important problems. And once the second debate is over, all the two candidates will have to do is survive until Election Day on Nov. 5.

Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman.

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