Last week, I wrote about the fundamental stability of the presidential race—with Donald Trump’s consistently high negatives and persistent weakness with nonwhite voters, Republican women, and college-educated whites making it very difficult for him to prevail. I wrote it would take a September surprise to change the trajectory of the race.
That surprise just happened.
Hillary Clinton still remains the favorite, but the uncertain status of her health counts as one of the few unanticipated developments that could shake up the race. Video of Clinton collapsing after the 9/11 commemoration ceremonies has been replayed all over television, showing a candidate looking alarmingly unsteady. Her campaign’s constantly shifting explanations of her maladies—from allergies to heat exhaustion to dehydration to a belated explanation of pneumonia—raise legitimate suspicions that Clinton has something to hide. The New York Post reported Tuesday that the Clinton campaign, in a desire to avoid medical leaks, bypassed Secret Service protocol to head directly to an emergency hospital.
Even Clinton senior campaign staffers are having trouble getting their stories straight. Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Monday that he was aware of her Friday pneumonia diagnosis, then three hours later, on the same network, campaign manager Robby Mook declined to say if he knew about it. “I’m not going to get into details about who knew her medical information,” Mook said.
Concerns about Clinton’s health aren’t limited to the vast right-wing conspiracy anymore. On NBC’s Meet the Press, former anchor Tom Brokaw recommended Clinton go to a hospital to see a neurologist. On National Public Radio, Cokie Roberts reported about hushed chatter in Democratic circles on the outside possibility that Clinton would need to be replaced on the ballot. “It has them very nervously beginning to whisper about her stepping aside and finding another candidate,” she said.
When these types of conversations are happening beyond the conservative confines of Hannity, they are likely to have some impact on how the public views her capability to govern. This was a nonissue to most voters before last weekend. Fully 74 percent of registered voters said they had no concerns about Clinton’s health in a Fox News poll conducted last month. That number is bound to decrease after this weekend’s developments. The major question is whether her health issues raise sympathy or suspicion with the public.
In a sign of how consequential an impact that Clinton’s health scare could have on the race, even Trump showed restraint in reacting to the breaking news. The campaign rightly recognized that the images of a collapsing Clinton is enough to drive coverage on its own. Trump, who has been equally secretive about his own health, smartly stayed out of the fray on this issue. (True to form, he’s talking about his health regimen on The Dr. Oz Show on Thursday.) Clinton’s campaign has pledged to release more of her medical records in the coming days, which should help clarify her current condition.
To be sure, Clinton is in control of the narrative about her own health. If she maintains a rigorous campaign schedule and starts taking more questions from the press, it will take steam out of the issue. If she has a commanding debate performance against Trump, she could obliterate any lingering concerns. That’s how Ronald Reagan dismissed any questions about his age during his memorable 1984 debate against Walter Mondale, when he quipped: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” If this is simply an issue about privacy, Clinton is in the clear. If we’re still talking about her health in October, it’s a problem.
The problem for Trump, however, is that while Clinton’s problems could cost her some support, it’s unclear that he will benefit all that much. His negatives are so high with the constituencies that he needs to win over that third-party candidates could end up being the bigger beneficiaries if Clinton’s support sinks. And in an absolute worst-case scenario, if Clinton had to withdraw from the race for health reasons, a generic Democrat should outperform her significantly.
Trump’s best hope is that third-party candidates hold their support, take more votes from Clinton, and the magic number for victory is closer to 40 percent than an outright majority. A new NBC/SurveyMonkey online poll, conducted before Clinton’s health scare, shows Trump’s deficit at 4 points in a two-way race (with him at 44 percent) but down to 2 points in a four-way contest (at 40 percent). Trump has been consistently hovering around that 40 percent mark for months.
It’s ironic that Clinton’s final campaign hurdle could be convincing voters that she’s physically up for the presidency. A clear majority doesn’t believe that Trump is prepared to be commander in chief. All Clinton needs to do is reassure voters that her health won’t be an obstacle.