The List

5 World Events That Could Swing the U.S. Election

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are slugging it out over the economy, but the world may have a trick or two up its sleeve.

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."

A EUROPEAN NOSEDIVE

The prospect of a Greek anti-austerity party winning new elections in June has sparked widespread fear that Greece will default on its debt and exit the eurozone, which could spread contagion in southern Europe and plunge the global economy back into recession. But there's a debate about the extent to which the European debt crisis will influence the U.S. election.

If a Greek exit precipitates the collapse of the eurozone, Brookings Institution scholar William Galston argues in the New Republic, it will be disastrous for Europe and the United States. But he adds that U.S. GDP growth would probably slow and the unemployment rate would likely stagnate even if the European monetary union remains intact after Greece's departure. "These developments would make it harder for Obama to argue that we're heading in the right direction, and ... I suspect that economic growth at these depressed levels would mean victory for Mitt Romney," he writes. Or, as the Washington Post's Ezra Klein noted earlier this year, Obama's reelection "will be largely decided by the state of the economy. And the state of the economy will largely be decided by events in Europe. And Europe's not looking so good."

But others argue that Greece won't drop out of the eurozone before November, if it does so at all, or that the American financial system isn't particularly vulnerable to a Greek exit.

A CHINESE ECONOMIC SLOWDOWN

China's slowing economic growth -- which dropped to a nearly three-year low of 8.1 percent in the first quarter of 2012 -- has prompted Chinese leaders to pledge new measures to stimulate domestic demand and commentators to warn of an impending economic crisis in the country. This week, the World Bank cut its growth forecast for China and cautioned that a recession in Europe could take a heavy toll on the Middle Kingdom, which in turn could stifle growth in other East Asian nations.

But when Beijing sneezes, does Washington catch a cold? China's sluggish growth poses a "substantial risk" to the United States as the general election approaches, Campbell Harvey, a professor at Duke University, told CNN on Wednesday. "You don't need a lot to knock us out of recovery."

A DOMESTIC TERRORIST ATTACK

The United States has not suffered a major terrorist attack during Obama's presidency, and the administration has foiled several plots -- most recently an attempt by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to bomb a U.S.-bound plane. The president has taken out several high-profile terrorists through drone strikes and touted the killing of Osama bin Laden as one of his signal achievements -- much to Mitt Romney's chagrin. But an attack on American soil could instantly shatter the armor Obama has built up on national security, reverse the public's declining concern about terrorism, and transform the campaign. And such a scenario isn't out of the question. Two of the most high-profile attacks in recent years -- the Christmas Day bombing attempt in 2009 and the Times Square bombing attempt in 2010 -- were thwarted by luck as much as anything else, with the perpetrators failing to detonate their explosives (and, in the case of the Times Square bomber, a street vendor spotting a smoking SUV).

As the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake recently pointed out, foreign policy has proven pivotal in only one of the last five presidential elections: the 2004 contest, which was the first race after the worst terrorist attack on American soil in U.S. history. And we all know how that one turned out.

THE UNKNOWN UNKNOWN

There's a reason we call the "October surprise" what we do -- sometimes (though admittedly not often) we simply don't know what will tilt the results of a race until Election Day is upon us. The term "October surprise" dates to 1972, when National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger declared less than two weeks before the presidential election that peace was "at hand" in Vietnam -- comments that were credited with helping President Richard Nixon resoundingly defeat George McGovern (though in truth, Nixon didn't need much help). During the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan's campaign worried that President Jimmy Carter would strike an eleventh-hour deal to free American hostages in Iran (instead, they were released shortly after Reagan was sworn in as president). In 2004, John Kerry blamed his loss to George W. Bush on a video released by Osama bin Laden just days before the vote ("We were rising in the polls up until the last day when the tape appeared," the Massachusetts senator lamented).

In others words, we have a ways to go until November, and anything from security in Afghanistan to violence in Syria to elections in Venezuela (ominously scheduled for October) could emerge as a potential game-changer. When the 2008 presidential election got underway, everyone assumed that foreign policy -- specifically the war in Iraq -- would be the dominant issue in the campaign. And then the global financial crisis hit, propelling the economy to the top of the agenda. It's too early to rule out the reverse happening in 2012.

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The List

Jobs for Billionaires

A few problems back here on Earth in need of some serious capital.

An unmanned rocket owned by the private company Space Exploration Technologies launched Tuesday on the first commercial flight to the International Space Station. SpaceX, founded by PayPal's Elon Musk, has spent about $1.2 billion to date -- $400 million of it from NASA -- in its bid to develop private space flight into a viable commercial enterprise. It's been a busy couple of weeks for rich guys with outer space ambitions. In late April, a group including the co-founders of Google and film director James Cameron announced the formation of a startup company with plans to one day mine asteroids for platinum.

Space exploration may one day provide the Earth with tangible benefits. In the short-term, at least, SpaceX can help save the U.S. government the $60 million per person it's paying Russia to transport astronauts to the space station, which, as the joke goes, exists so that the now-canceled space shuttle would have somewhere to go. But we couldn't help thinking, as long as Silicon Valley plutocrats are throwing around hundreds of millions of dollars to solve global problems with questionable economic benefits, there are a few pressing Earth-bound ones they might consider.

HELPING STOP CHILDHOOD MALNUTRITION

In its 2012 challenge report, the Copenhagen Consensus Center -- which convenes economists, including several Nobel Prize winers,  to provide cost-benefit analyses of solving various global crises -- ranked efforts to combat childhood malnutrition as its highest priority. (The center is controversial because of its founder Bjorn Lomborg's skepticism about efforts to combat climate change, but its numbers are at least worth considering as a conversation starter.)

According to the center's analysis, a $3 billion investment in interventions to reduce chronic undernutrition in pre-schoolers could reduce it by up to 36 percent in developing countries. In terms of education and health benefits, every dollar spent on combating undernutrition has at least a $30 payoff.

PREVENTING MALARIA AND OTHER CHILDHOOD DISEASES

Among diseases, Copenhagen gives its highest priority to efforts to prevent malaria. According to the center's analysis, every $1 million spend on a subsidy for malaria combination treatment would result in an additional 300,000 children being treated, preventing 1,000 deaths. Another area to consider is childhood immunization. Malaria control is considered one of the most cost-effective health interventions in terms of results per dollar spent.

The economists convened by the center estimate that $1 billion spent annually on increasing immunizations can prevent 1 million childhood deaths.

PROVIDING EARLY WARNING FOR CYCLONES

In 2009, the World Bank's Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery conducted a cost-benefit analysis of seven types of natural disaster preparedness. In terms of effectiveness and the number of potential lives saved, the bank concluded that cyclone warnings are by far the most effective. Tropical cyclones kill more than 10,000 people globally each year, but improved forecasting can increase lead-times for evacuation and significantly reduce those numbers.

For instance, 2007's Cyclone Sidr killed around 3,400 people in Bangladesh and caused an estimated $1.7 billion in damage. An advanced numerical weather prediction system would have cost about $3.1 million to deploy over a 10-year period, but could have reduced the monetary damages caused by Sidr by more than $79.14 million -- a 2,500-percent return on investment.

IMPROVING WATER SANITATION

Looking for a cost-effective way to save lives and grow the global economy? Try providing clean water. Worldwide, 884 million people lack access to improved water sources -- meaning house connections or protected wells. Some 2.6 billion people lack access to improved water sanitation, meaning sewer connections, septic tanks, or pit latrines. According to the World Health Organization, improving sanitation could reduce the global disease burden - years of life lost to premature mortality or  poor health --by 9.1 percent and prevent the deaths of 1.5 million children per year.

Water improvement interventions are fairly cost effective. In most developing countries, $1 spent on improved water can translate to between $5 and $11 in economic benefits thanks to health savings and fewer work days lost due to disease and diarrhea. In the United States, investments in water filtration and chlorination in the first half of the 20th century had an estimated rate of return of 23 to 1.

FAMILY PLANNING

The Guttmacher Institute, a global reproductive health NGO, estimated in 2009 that it would cost an additional $3.6 billion to meet the world's unmet need for modern family-planning methods. Providing all pregnant women and their newborns with the recommended standard of medical care would cost an additional $9.2 billion -- though preventing unwanted pregnancies would shave $5.1 billion off that. This spending, they estimate, could cut unintended pregnancies from 75 million to 22 million per year and reduce maternal deaths by 70 percent, newborn deaths by 44 percent, and unsafe abortions by 73 percent.

The total price tag for Guttmacher's recommendations is an additional $12.8 billion per year. Yes, that's pretty hefty. But when you consider the fact that $1 billion gets you about two ounces of an asteroid, it starts to seem a little more reasonable.

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