There’s a lot of talk about how Osama bin Laden’s execution will affect the 2012 elections, but I think the likely answer is that we have no idea how his capture will affect the elections, because we have no idea what will happen next. If the question is “what will bin Laden’s killing mean for the 2012 elections assuming nothing major happens between then and now?” that’s an easier question to answer, but it’s not a very useful one. Nevertheless, I think it’s the one people are implicitly asking when they talk about this.

If you don’t hold world events constant, it’s easy to concoct as many scenarios in which bin Laden’s killing hurts Obama as those where it helps him. Consider that terrorist organizations usually respond to the capture or killing of a leader by intensifying attacks. So one possible outcome is that al-Qaeda manages to pull off a series of suicide bombings in the United States eight months from now. These attacks don’t have to be very effective for them to be very scary, and if the Obama administration is seen as bungling the aftermath of their strike against bin Laden — after all, retaliatory terror attacks were perfectly predictable — voters could end up turning against him.

But al-Qaeda has had trouble mounting further attacks against the continental United States. So perhaps a likelier scenario is one in which they begin a targeted and persistent series of strikes against Middle Eastern oil supplies. Uncertainty — and maybe even a serious hit or two — causes the price of gas rises, and this leads to significant economic pain, or even a recession, in the months preceding the election.

Which is not to say that capturing bin Laden will hurt Obama. Maybe nothing will go wrong, and if that’s the situation in 2012, it’s easy, as Steve Benen notes, to write a pretty killer reelection pitch:

What I’m imagining is Obama and his supporters offering voters a list of accomplishments from his first term, and it’s going to be a doozy: ended the Great Recession, health care reform, Wall Street reform, student loan reform, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, New START, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the biggest overhaul of our food-safety laws in 70 years, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, expanded stem-cell research, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, net neutrality, the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, health care for 9/11 rescue workers, and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices.

Oh, and he killed Osama bin Laden, too.

Is that a winning message? I’ve heard worse.

Bottom line? Predictions are hard, especially about the future. When you read them — and particularly when you read a bunch of them at once — keep in mind that most pundits are barely more accurate than flipping a coin, and a good number of them are quite a bit less accurate.