The prevailing political wisdom is that the economy -- not foreign policy -- will determine who becomes the next president of the United States. When voters were asked in a Washington Post-ABC News poll this week what the single most important issue was for them in choosing a president, 52 percent said jobs and the economy (and they're evenly split on whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would do a better job on the latter). To put that figure in perspective, the second most-cited issue was "Health care/repealing Obamacare" at a mere 7 percent, while foreign-policy issues such as terrorism and the war in Afghanistan each mustered a measly 1 percent of responses. In January, the Pew Research Center concluded that the American public is more concerned with domestic policy than at any point in the past 15 years.
But every politician lives in fear
of that 3 a.m. phone
call that can upend the best-laid campaign plans. Here are five global events
that could send the U.S. election careening along a very different path than
the one it's traveling down today.
A SHOWDOWN WITH IRAN
World powers are currently wrapping up a second round of contentious nuclear talks with Tehran and the European Union is preparing to roll out an oil embargo on Iran in July. But if this diplomatic tack fails to wring meaningful concessions from Iran, there's an outside chance that Israel -- or, in a less likely scenario, the United States and its allies -- will conclude before November that military action is the only way to halt Iran's nuclear advances (some have even suggested that it's in the interests of Israeli leaders to strike Iran's nuclear facilities in the run-up to the U.S. election). Americans see Iran as the country that represents the greatest threat to the United States, and a recent Pew poll found that 63 percent of Americans are willing to go to war if necessary to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons -- a measure that Romney has promoted more aggressively than Obama, though both candidates have said that all options are on the table.
Some market analysts estimate that a military conflict with Iran could push gas prices in the United States to between $5 and $6 per gallon, alienating voters and jeopardizing the country's fitful economic recovery. And there's a reason why the National Journal's Charlie Cook has dubbed Iran the "wild card" this campaign season: The last five times gas prices have spiked during a U.S. presidential campaign, the incumbent party has lost the election. As the New York Times put it in January, the standoff with Iran presents Obama "with choices that could harm either the economic recovery or his image as a firm leader."