AGAINST THE GRAIN

The Campaign’s September Surprise

Hillary Clinton’s health wasn’t an issue until this weekend. Her videotaped collapse—combined with unceasing secrecy—threatens to raise serious questions in the home stretch.

Hillary Clinton gets into a van as she leaves an apartment building in New York after collapsing at a 9/11 anniversary ceremony.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Sept. 13, 2016, 8 p.m.

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.

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