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Hillary Clinton's health news comes just as the race is close enough for Dems to worry

Justin Sullivan/Getty

The revelation that Hillary Clinton has come down with pneumonia is just the latest reason Democrats have to be nervous about a presidential race that’s grown uncomfortably close.

To be clear: Clinton remains ahead of Donald Trump in most polls, both nationally and in almost every swing state, and she continues to have the advantage in forecasting models. Plus, her campaign operation appears to be far superior to Trump’s. She’s still the clear favorite, and it’s not time for a full-on Democratic panic.

But even before the events of this weekend, Clinton’s margin had already shrunk quite a bit since her peak in August, when polls suggested she’d win a decisive victory over Trump or even a landslide. All of a sudden, some key states she seemed to be running away with were looking competitive again, even before a rough outing for Clinton in NBC’s televised forum last week.

This is the context in which Clinton’s fainting spell Sunday, and her campaign’s somewhat belated announcement that she has pneumonia, is unfolding: a campaign that has gotten closer.

We don’t yet know, of course, how much of an impact this news about Clinton’s health will have. It’s possible she’ll fully recover and set any concerns at rest with a strong debate performance in two weeks. But it’s certainly an unpleasant development for a campaign that no longer looks to be headed to as easy a victory as it seemed a few weeks ago.

It’s not clear whether or how much the pneumonia news will hurt Clinton, but it certainly won’t help

There’s little precedent for understanding just how much voters might be swayed by a candidate’s health. After all, if some tragedy should befall Clinton while she was in office, her well-liked vice presidential pick, Tim Kaine, would become president, and it’s difficult to see why any Clinton-supporting voter would prefer a Trump presidency over that outcome.

Still, presidential campaigns with candidates on the older side have long feared the topics of age and health could be used to define them as unfit for the office, so this is most assuredly not the story the Clinton team wants to see dominating national news eight weeks before Election Day. And this is at a time when Clinton’s lead over Trump in the polls has already been growing smaller of late — down to 3 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average.

RealClearPolitics

Furthermore, in Clinton’s case, the health news can be used by her critics to corroborate long-extant attacks on her for being unusually dishonest and secretive. For instance, the fact that she waited two days after her pneumonia diagnosis to publicly announce it plays into this narrative that her opponents are trying to establish, and will make some wonder whether she’d similarly hide more serious health problems.

That may be somewhat unfair. Everyone gets sick — except maybe Trump, according to his very exuberant doctor. There are reports that others on Clinton’s staff have been hit by the same bug, suggesting this isn’t something unique to her. And Clinton has been campaigning intensely for more than a year now, so one would think that if she had some sort of serious illness that wasn’t just a passing bug, we would have seen evidence of it before now.

Still, the pneumonia announcement makes the topic of Clinton’s health front-page news and gives the media justification to talk about it — just as the Trump campaign has long wanted. Trump and his allies have been trying to spread unsourced gossip that Clinton could be ill for months now, but the press has, for the most part, treated it like a conspiracy theory.

After this news, though, the topic will no longer be taboo. You can see this in a rapid-fire turnaround from the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, who went from writing, “Can we just stop talking about Hillary Clinton’s health now?” to, “Hillary Clinton’s health just became a real issue in the presidential campaign,” in just five short days.

Finally, the news simply presents practical problems for the Clinton campaign. A candidate’s time is a precious resource, and every hour or day Clinton spends recuperating is an hour or day she can’t spend stumping in swing states or fundraising. Indeed, she has already canceled a scheduled fundraising trip to the West Coast this week.

Meanwhile, her leads in several swing states have gotten smaller, according to the RealClearPolitics poll averages — from 11 points in Virginia to 6, from 11 points in Wisconsin to 5, from 9 points in New Hampshire to 5, from 9 points in Pennsylvania to 6, from 5 points in Florida to a tie there. Again, she still appears to be ahead in most of these states, and the swing state math still looks very challenging for Trump, so it’s not time for Democrats to press the panic button just yet. Still, it’s not an opportune time for the candidate to be sidelined.

Clinton will have an opportunity to put chatter about her health to rest during the debates

Hillary debate Andrew Burton/Getty

Barring any further bad health news that emerges in the next few weeks, the question of just how serious news this is will mainly be settled in the debates, which are set to begin two weeks from today.

First off, if Clinton looks healthy and formidable in these highly rated, high-stakes televised events, she will likely silence any chatter about her physical fitness for office.

President Ronald Reagan famously used a 1984 debate to quiet concerns about his age by quipping that he wouldn’t “exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” (Though that may not be a comparison the Clinton campaign wants to make, since Reagan may have come down with Alzheimer’s while serving his second term.)

Since Clinton seemed to be healthy enough in the nine Democratic primary debates that took place over the past year, it’s pretty easy to imagine her coming off that way again. Then the Trump campaign will have wasted much of its messaging efforts on a narrative that voters won’t believe.

But obviously there’s a danger in the debates too. If Clinton hasn’t sufficiently recovered by the time they kick off, if she cancels, or if she demonstrates symptoms of illness onstage, it could play havoc with a race that’s already looking too close for comfort for Democrats.

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