Nothing is certain in presidential politics, but in the final weeks of the long summer of 2016, Hillary Clinton seemed to enjoy the next best thing. Swing state polls showed her with a huge advantage over her Republican rival, Donald Trump, with handicappers and betting markets setting her odds of victory in November north of 70%. After months of mostly avoiding the press, the former Secretary of State upgraded to a 737 airplane and began to take questions.
There she made clear that she was not anywhere close to declaring victory. “I feel we’re in a strong position, but we’re not taking anyplace, anyone, anything for granted,” she told the nation. Her staff and advisers were even more uneasy, certain that some event would soon disrupt the presidential race. “You have to imagine there will be an October surprise of some sort,” one Clinton consultant tells TIME. “It seems like something Donald Trump and his team are especially well-suited to do. Our task will be to build a campaign that is strong enough to take the blow and still come out on top.”
What no one could predict was that the first surprises would come so quickly, the result not of any machinations by Trump’s allies but Clinton’s own actions. In an attempt to rally high-dollar donors Friday night, Clinton made what she described as a “grossly generalistic” claim: “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables, right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.” For a candidate promising to unite the nation under the banner of “Stronger Together,” the claim was off message, and she promptly tried to walk it back. “I regret saying ‘half,’” she explained in a follow-up statement, “that was wrong.”
Then her own health took a turn. As the nation marked the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she had a scare at a ceremony in the New York City sun. Her aides had to physically support her as she stumbled into her campaign van. She left the event without her press corps, or any explanation, until an aide told reporters said she had “overheated.” Only later in the day did the campaign disclose that she had been diagnosed two days earlier with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics. Her weakness was ascribed to dehydration.
In the space of 36 hours, even her strongest boosters found themselves shaking their heads in disbelief. If there’s a direct path and a winding one to victory, it now seems as if she’ll forge a third option that is twice as long and half as rewarding. Her friends describe her as a passionate problem solver, but also wonder if this campaign isn’t a solution that keeps making problems. Caught up by the spirit of her most committed supporters, she made comments that could alienate voters she might win. Insisting on keeping her campaign schedule — which would exhaust anyone half of her 68 years — caused a physical stumble just as she was projecting political strength. Refusing to be transparent about her health issues, when her least responsible critics peddle baseless conspiracy theories about her health, will only fuel more baseless speculation.
Through Sunday night, Trump kept quiet about her health scare. But he is unlikely to resist commenting for long. He has long suggested Clinton lacks the stamina for her aspirations. Her coughing fits, the effects of allergies, are on loop on talk radio. Depending on the hour and their audience, her critics either insist that Clinton is suffering from severe head trauma, cancer, amnesia, or degenerative neurological conditions, without any credible evidence. And yet, both candidates have been elliptical in describing their health, breaking with tradition that allows for a full vetting of private medical files. Clinton in 2015 released a note from her doctor, summarizing her health. It largely said she was in fine health for a woman of her age. Trump has released an even less substantive letter from his doctor, which was marked with hyperbole.
Only the most basic details of Clinton’s current health were released on Sunday. “On Friday, during follow up evaluation of her prolonged cough, she was diagnosed with pneumonia,” Clinton’s physician said in a statement released from the campaign. “She was put on antibiotics, and advised to rest and modify her schedule. While at this morning’s event, she became overheated and dehydrated. I have just examined her and she is now re-hydrated and recovering nicely.”
The statement suggests that Clinton kept working long hours in the face of the diagnosis. She powered into a fundraiser in Manhattan, determined to keep collecting those campaign checks. Any number of reasons could be guessed as to why she said what she did about Trump’s supporters, but it’s not unreasonable to consider her that her illness that night may have contributed to her calling into question the characters of millions of Americans who respond to Trump’s nationalistic, pro-America rhetoric.
The remark about a “basket of deplorables” immediately drew comparisons to Mitt Romney’s comments four years earlier that 47% of Americans don’t pay taxes and thus were unlikely to support his candidacy. “I won’t stop calling out bigotry and racist rhetoric in this campaign,” she said in her explanation on Saturday. “Many of Trump’s supporters are hard-working Americans who just don’t feel like the economy or our political system are working for them.”
Leaders quickly also sent talking points to allies, hoping they would pick up the pieces and defend their party’s nominee. One scrolled through the talking points and only shook his head in disbelief. “They’re doubling down,” he muttered Saturday evening before a black-tie LGBT rights fundraiser in Washington, headlined by Clinton vice-presidential pick Tim Kaine. “Unbelievable.”
The weekend of brutal press coverage and then her health incident are, to be sure, just one moment in this campaign. There will be others, and they will likely have more consequence than Clinton ducking reporters while feeling ill. But it goes to the broader point of Clinton: her fortress always seems to be one error away falling apart. Her aides have long been protective, anticipating the worst — from her and from the press — and it’s often been grounded in sound reasoning.
The next nine weeks of this campaign are likely to be as uneven, and it has left most Clinton aides wishing they could fast forward to the day after Election Day. No matter how much they prepare, or how cautious they become, they simply can’t fully control what happens next.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org