The 2016 presidential campaign has followed a pattern: In a contest featuring two widely disliked candidates, each has risen in response to the other’s failings and each has fallen due to self-inflicted wounds.
Hillary Clinton rose in polls this summer after Donald Trump’s undisciplined attacks on a Gold Star family, and other remarks that insulted racial or ethnic minorities, pushed away centrist voters.
Trump, more recently, has risen on concerns about Clinton’s family foundation, her description of half his voters being “a basket of deplorables,” and her reluctance to be fully transparent about her health.
Just when he might have sought to cement and extend his new, narrow lead in some swing states, Trump on Friday delved into a topic he recently had tried to avoid — his long effort to prove President Obama is not an American citizen. And he did so by making fresh, and demonstrably inaccurate, accusations against Clinton.
But the accusation appeals to far fewer voters than a candidate needs to win the White House. So Trump’s advisors — if not the candidate, himself — have eagerly looked for a way he could climb down.
Nothing Trump said on Friday will loosen the grasp of his fervent supporters, who have granted him a wide berth and who, in interview after interview, indicate they are less concerned about what Trump says than their belief that he’s speaking for them.
The voters who haven’t yet chosen sides, however, indicate they want more — including details about how he would govern.
The impact of Trump’s latest statements cannot be measured immediately. But if his point was to appeal to those voters by putting his “birther” campaign behind him, he will not be helped by the endless loop of television clips showing him casting doubt on an increasingly popular president.
But for Trump’s own actions, those voters might have been hearing Friday about the economic plan he had released the day before, or the child care proposals he made earlier this week. Instead they were reliving a fight that started five years ago, of Trump punching against the truth.
Trump’s terse comments, and his erroneous statements about Clinton, followed a day in which he behaved more like the old Trump who had worried suburban and less-partisan voters in whose hands the election increasingly seems to rest.
He refused to concede Obama’s birthplace in a Washington Post interview published Thursday. He claimed Friday morning that he couldn’t tell Fox broadcaster Maria Bartiromo what he believed because “we have to keep the suspense going” — as though stoking interest in a coming reality show.
Later Friday, at the close of an event in Washington that also served to promote his new hotel, Trump falsely claimed that Clinton and her 2008 presidential campaign “started the birther controversy” and that he had “finished it.”
There’s no evidence that Clinton or her campaign ever circulated the idea that Obama had not been born in the U.S., although some individual supporters of hers made that claim late in the 2008 primary season.
Trump then said that Obama “was born in the United States, period.”
“Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again,” he said, as though that ended the conversation.
He offered no apology for stoking fears about the president’s legitimacy. He also did not explain what had caused him to change his mind, since no new facts have emerged in the years he has been suggesting Obama was born in Africa -- a claim he had repeated in interviews as recently as 2014, long after Obama released his birth certificate.
For both candidates this year, a big part of the campaign has been about convincing voters to overlook — or forgive — their flaws.
For Clinton, that means getting voters past fears about her trustworthiness and willing to embrace a third consecutive Democratic term in the White House.
She has offered reams of policy proposals — enough to collect in book form — but since much of the campaign this year has focused on Trump, she has had a hard time getting out her own message.
Instead, high-profile embarrassments have put out a message she does not want to circulate.
In the case of her recent bout with pneumonia, her supporters worry that refusal to disclose an illness until video surfaced of a near-collapse would further the perception of dishonesty and create a fresh opening for Trump.
In Trump’s case, his campaign has been about persuading voters to disregard his showman instincts and his sometimes-coarse manner and instead seize on him as a transformative figure ready to punish the purveyors of politics as usual.
Recently, under his third set of campaign managers, Trump had behaved more conventionally. He began using a teleprompter to hew more closely to his planned speeches and limit the freewheeling asides that have often gotten him in trouble. He started talking more about the policies he would push as president.
The changes have been a clear effort to appeal to voters who remained on the sidelines because they were uncomfortable with his old ways — those in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio who will be key to this year’s outcome.
But as a result of his own actions, the voters he needs are now being hit with the reminders of Trump advocating a fringe belief about Obama.
And in the latest continuation of the campaign’s pattern of each candidate exploiting the other’s flaws, Clinton has seized on the issue’s re-emergence as proof of her claim that Trump is unfit to be president.
In remarks she made before Trump spoke on Friday, Clinton said Trump owed Obama “and the American people” an apology.
“His campaign was founded on this outrageous lie,” she said. “There is no erasing it in history.”
If this campaign’s pattern holds, a new self-inflicted wound has now put Trump in peril of losing ground to Clinton once again.