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Hillary Clinton handled illness rumours badly – secrecy helps Donald Trump fuel conspiracies

Thu, 15 Sep 2016  |   Insights


Published in IBTimes 14 September 2016:  

Working with the campaign team for Donald Trump must be a breeze. No matter what the boss says or does, it doesn’t really matter. He doesn’t care what falls out of his mouth, so why should you? Just enjoy the ride. You can hardly make things any weirder.

Working on the campaign team for Hillary Clinton must be hugely stressful by comparison. Where The Donald doesn’t care, Hillary over-cares. The whole team spend too much time analysing the electorate’s reaction to events and the resulting impact on November’s Presidential election. As a result, they spend too little time thinking about what actually happened.

It’s that over-thinking which has landed them in the political quicksand this week, and so needlessly. Just as the predictions were settling down to a relatively steady pattern, they find a way to blow it all up again.

So Clinton felt a bit poorly, we now know that. The nature and seriousness of her illness has, of course, caused a lot of commentary. People have been furiously trying to remember the name of her running mate, the man who might be a heartbeat away from the presidency (clue: try typing ‘Tim Kaine’ into Google).

What the situation needed was clarity and transparency. What we got was obfuscation and bizarre switches in the narrative.

She had a ‘medical episode’. She was coughing because she had allergies; she collapsed because of the heat. Oh, OK, she had pneumonia. The good kind. The walking about kind. The one where you lie down in your daughter’s flat for a bit then get up and start cuddling children, maybe take some antibiotics and lie down for two days. That one.

It was a weird, unnecessary mishandling that turned a bad situation into a potentially disastrous one. How bad is it? It had the effect of making Trump go quiet, safe in the knowledge that the damage was being done to Clinton by friendly fire and his silence was almost statesman-like. It was that bad and Clinton’s team know it.

To check the extent of the damage, the social media analysis company Impact Social looked at over 10,000 social media posts and comments in open news forums, all in the key swing state of Florida with the media, commentators and politicos removed. This is looking at where the impact is most important, with voters in a state where their vote really counts.

If they look at the numbers, Clinton’s advisors will be sweating as much as the boss. The episode has reinforced an image of her as a politician first and foremost, that she will say what needs to be said to get into office, rather than what she genuinely believes. That she, in short, cannot be trusted. That’s not good, even when you’re battling Trump.

There’s two issues; one bad - the illness itself; and one worse - that no-one quite believes what they’ve been told about it.

To take the first problem - 21% found the pneumonia itself a ‘problem’, according to Impact Social, indicative of a wider issue around whether Clinton is healthy enough for the stress of office. The drip, drip of accusations about her health dating back to the blood clot in 2013 has allowed the older Trump, despite his own heavily edited medical records, to cast himself as the vigorous runner in the race.

That conclusion might seem harsh, but at least it is based on actual events. She was ill this week, she was ill before. She recovered before, she’ll recover again. If only, they’ll be thinking at Clinton HQ, they’d stuck to that as their mantra.

But no, that strange flip-flopping around what was actually happening brought the second, wider, problem, the one that plays into a very different narrative about Clinton’s health.

People believe, in significant numbers, that she is lying about her illness and that things are far worse. There’s a whole conspiracy theory around Clinton’s illnesses. If one per cent of them were true, it would be a medical miracle for her to even be upright. She has had strokes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, HIV, asthma, seizures, and heart trouble. After that you wouldn’t be surprised to learn she only has a year left to live. The fact she appears in public is mostly because she has a body double. The tin-foil hat wearing, Hillary-conspiracy theorists have just had their Christmas this past few days. However unhinged some of their theories may seem, they all add to the ‘no smoke without fire’ viewpoint of some voters.

Amongst the voters of Florida, 36% of the negativity surrounded the belief that she has lied about her health record, with another 5% talking about a cover-up - and another 14% not happy with that children-hugging thing. It’s clear that too many people instinctively don’t believe her.

The air of panic emanating from the Clinton campaign are redolent of the mis-steps that tend to come from a politician too worried about what people think about an event than what to do actually do about it. Analysing the impact rather than the fact, when a simple admission of illness, and allowing her running mate to step forward, would have been worthy of comment, but the damage would have been limited. By over-thinking, Clinton’s team forgot the rational facts - she is younger and more rooted in reality than Trump.

If she, and her over-wrought campaign team, let that fundamental advantage slip away, and make more mistakes like this, then she may yet snatch defeat in this extraordinary election.