US election

Analysis: Just a Stumble, or a Turning Point?

By September 15, 2016 No Comments

By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst

The Presidency of the United States invests tremendous power into just one individual and so, for better or for worse, there have always been questions around the health of candidates running for office. Not until recent years, however, has that developed into a tradition of disclosing medical information by the candidates over the course of the campaign – though it is not as rock solid as the tradition of disclosing tax returns.

Generally, these disclosures follow concern over a candidate’s health, as they did in 2008 when the 71 year-old Sen. John McCain gave journalists direct access to extensive medical records.

Because both candidates for 2016 are around 70 years old, the question of their health has been bubbling for some time. It finally exploded into public conversation after Hillary Clinton abruptly departed from the 9/11 memorial service on Sunday.

Video of her appearing to stumble and nearly collapse while being helped into a van quickly surfaced on Twitter, and speculation over her condition spun out of control as her team failed to respond quickly and clearly enough to mitigate the developing story.

But does this represent a turning point in the campaign in favor of Donald Trump, as many have been quick to project? The answer is: probably no. It’s actually just a stumble. Both candidates face basically the same problem, and have hesitated to come forward with more than letters from their doctors attesting to their health. There is little reason to think that this is some kind of fundamental flaw of Clinton’s that turns the tables in favor of Trump. But on balance the health question still benefits Donald Trump for two big reasons.

The first is that Trump has not had a public incident in which he is perceived as struggling with health related questions in the way that Clinton had last week. She has a history of health-related problems, most notably in 2012 when she fainted and had a concussion, which led to the discovery and removal of a blood clot near her brain.

The 2012 health scare also fed a persistent set of rumors and conspiracy theories that have been virtually impossible for Clinton to dislodge, and that are amplified every time her health is back in the spotlight. As the first woman candidate for President, having such public problems causes more trouble for her in contrast to Trump, who has worked to build an image of himself as an invincible strongman and has evaded comparable public incidents.

The second is that the way the 9/11 incident was handled played into the perception of Clinton as overly secretive and dishonest. Polls already show that she is widely perceived as not being honest and trustworthy, so any story that confirms that can compound the problem further. That is the case even when she counters with efforts to be transparent, as she did this week when she published medical information that is far more detailed than what Trump provided.

Crucially, the problem of her being seen as secretive and dishonest complicates her attempts to appeal to Republican voters who have doubts about Trump. 71% of Republican respondents to a Rasmussen poll taken after the 9/11 incident said that they think her health issues make her less able to be the president of the United States.

It’s still too early to say whether this week is a turning point in the polls. In the coming weeks we will be able to look back and more conclusively say whether the health questions have made a real difference in this campaign, as more polling comes out and we can detect inflection points.

What is clear, is that Trump has gained ground on Clinton and that is, by any measure, a significant development. But that narrowing trend has been happening in slow motion for almost a month now. Even if this week’s developments hurt Clinton more than they hurt Trump, there are still 53 days to go until election day, including three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate. A lot can happen in that remaining time.

Cover image: Hillary Clinton by Getty Images